Life Without Smell May Not Be Worth It Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have shown they can extend the life spans of roundworms even when the worms are well fed. It just takes a chemical that blocks their sense of smell. Humans, however, need the sense of smell — and a longer life may not be worth losing it.
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Life Without Smell May Not Be Worth It

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Life Without Smell May Not Be Worth It

Life Without Smell May Not Be Worth It

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Our commentator, Andrei Codrescu, was inspired by some odd things. Here's one. Earlier this month, researchers in St. Louis showed that the life span of roundworms can be extended. As Andrei points out, that required blocking the worms' sense of smell.

ANDREI CODRESCU: Researchers removed their ability to smell by using a chemical that is the chief ingredient in an anti-convulsive drug prescribed for humans. One of the drug's side effects is that the patients lose the sense of smell. We could live longer and convulse less, but what is the point? Andre Breton, the surrealist poet, wrote in the 1920s, beauty will be convulsive or not at all. He was speaking about the future without guessing that humanity might choose to live longer without smelling anything or moving very much.

In worms, as in people, smell is related is to food. It is our very first sense and was vital when we lived on the forest floor. A reduced calorie intake is proven to prolong life, so it's possible that they scent less keenly when there's no food around, and so we live longer in the hope that one day a large, ripe, round cheese will roll at us and open up all our senses like an old factory fan.

We humans are poorly equipped for smell. We experience a mere fraction of what a dog-sniffing universe is composed of. My dog went to heaven her first time in New Orleans. The layers of funk made her so excited she didn't sleep the whole time. Later, she told me it was an encyclopedia of smells you'd need a million years of brilliant poets to find the language for. She told me this in dog with her nostrils trembling.

She chooses not to speak human, and through an olfactory point of view, I can see why. Human language itself may be involved in the smell versus longevity thing. Our oldest scent has the poorest descriptive vocabulary. It has become more impoverished the more our language developed. Was language itself a purposeful flight from scent in order to prolong our lives?

Longevity and language may be identical. You can't speak and eat at the same time. You can smell something alluring and viciously desirable, but if you keep talking, it will roll past you like a heavenly cheese that'll be eaten by taciturn creatures with more teeth and better noses. Does language prolong life, while taking deep whiffs of the beloved just kills you? Yes. Enough, said that pizza. Your cooling, dear, smells divine. The dog is going nuts and taking me with her. Hmm, to die for.

NORRIS: Poet Andrei Codrescu lives and smells in the Ozarks.

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