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My nose is growing

Helen Keller

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Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses includes a section titled, Prodigies of Smell, “the most famous of whom is probably Helen Keller." In fact, Helen Keller is the only prodigy discussed. She’s also the only prodigy mentioned in the Freeks, Geeks, and Prodigies chapter of Avery Gilbert’s What the Nose Knows.

Ackerman says, “Helen Keller had a miraculous gift for deciphering the fragrant palimpsest of life, all the ‘layers’ that most of us read as a blur.”

Gilbert says, “Let’s compare her talents to ours. Smells trigger memories – check. Approaching rainstorms have a smell – check. Can smell if a house is old-fashioned and long-lived-in – check. Can smell a person’s occupation (painter, carpenter, ironworker) – check. Close friends have distinctive odors – check. Babies smell sweet – check. Nothing extraordinary so far. Helen Keller does not sound like a nasal genius.”

Interestingly, both Ackerman and Gilbert are discussing the same article, Smell, the Fallen Angel, from Keller’s 1910 book, The World I Live In. The article and the whole book are available on-line. Let’s take a closer look. I won’t quote the whole article but I suggest you read it for yourself. Gilbert considers the prose, “somewhat overripe,” but I enjoy her love song to, “The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life…” without which, “I should be obliged to take my conception of the universe wholly from others.”

Besides memories triggered by daisies and fruits, she mentions, “The faintest whiff from a meadow where the new-mown hay lies in the sun displaces the here and the now. I am back again in the old red barn. My little friends and I are playing in the haymow. A huge mow it is, packed with crisp, sweet bay, from the top of which the smallest child can reach the straining rafters. In the stalls beneath are the farm animals…” and, “Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories …” I’ve written about a few of my memories triggered by smells but none have been as complete or detailed. And I can’t think of smells and have my nose fill with the scents. I have to say that her connections between smell and memory are so much stronger than mine that they approach a qualitative difference.

When it comes to an approaching storm, she doesn’t just say she can smell it coming. She says, “The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible.” Hours? About the best I do is notice increasing dust, wind and humidity at the same time I feel the first rain drops.

She recognizes a house as old-fashioned because, “it has several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes and draperies.”

After saying that there is no adequate vocabulary and that she must fall back on “approximate phrase and metaphor,” to describe person-odor, she says,
“Masculine exhalations are as a rule stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and sea salt. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all things strong and beautiful and joyous, and gives me a sense of physical happiness. I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent – pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality. It is not until the age of six or seven that they begin to have perceptible individual odors. These develop and mature along with their mental and bodily powers.”
When I read the quotes that Diane Ackerman included in her book, I was a little skeptical. They reminded me of Patrick Suskind’s, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer. I thought I’d Google a little and find articles about people who just imagine they can smell such things. But I didn’t find a single doubter, not even Gilbert. I did find the article and, after reading all of it several times, I judge that it rings true. Finally, I found this passage from an 1888 report by Anne Sullivan:
“Helen certainly derives great pleasure from the exercise of these senses. On entering a greenhouse her countenance becomes radiant, and she will tell the names of the flowers with which she is familiar, by the sense of smell alone. Her recollections of the sensations of smell are very vivid. She enjoys in anticipation the scent of a rose or a violet; and if she is promised a bouquet of these flowers, a particularly happy expression lights her face, indicating that in imagination she perceives their fragrance, and that it is pleasant to her. It frequently happens that the perfume of a flower or a fruit recalls to her mind some happy event in home life, or a delightful birthday party.”
I was so impressed, I had trouble understanding why Avery Gilbert wasn’t impressed. After a few more readings I decided that he was focused on the smell receptors in the nose, not on the processing in the brain. He mentions six studies in 20 years that have shown that the blind and the sighted detect odors at about the same concentration and that they are about equal in discriminating between odors. In half the studies the blind were better at naming odors but Gilbert says, “their success depended on cognitive factors such as memory rather than hyperacute perception.”

However the smell receptors in the nose work, their number and types appear to be genetically determined. The brain, however, can learn, form connections and even change the amount of “real estate” devoted to a sense or an area of knowledge. (We all devote brain space to computers and their uses. Helen Keller devoted none.) As a sensory psychologist, Avery Gilbert knows this well. 20 pages later he says that the wine experts’ advantage is “brain power, rather than nose power,” and mental disciplines such as making notes as they taste. Similarly it is better mental imagery rather than better noses that lets professional perfumers, “imagine how ingredients will smell when blended.” The brain wave patterns of professional wine sommeliers and perfumers show activity in a part of the brain devoted to cognitive judgments, while non-experts showed responses in brain areas associated with primary sensory response and emotion.

This is what I find wonderful and encouraging. “Practice in making deliberate judgments about what one smells leads to changes in brain function and makes a person into a better smeller.” Or, to give Helen Keller the last words, “By themselves, odors mean nothing. I must learn by association to judge from them of distance, of place, and of the actions or the surroundings which are the usual occasions for them, just as I am told people judge from color, light and sound.”


  1. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Wonderful article, Ed! Really great stuff. I found this extremely informative. And I agree completely. People build up the parts of the brain that they need, exactly as you say. All the receptors in the world won't do you a bit of good if you don't practice in the interpretation of their output.

    I have watched many of the people here gain expertise and very fine control over their noses. It's clear - they begin moving processing to the "rational, cognitive" parts of their brain. I'm probably a bit different in that - while I do want to increase the rational and cognitive processing somewhat - I'm most interesting in growing my emotional response to scent. In any case, I agree 100% - your "nose" IS growing - in your brain - just like Helen Keller's did!

    Again - great article!
  2. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Thanks, Red,

    I think language is a key to connecting fragrances to better thinking and better feeling. (Poetry was the preferred art of the hyper emotional 19th century romantics.) I like Helen Keller's writing about smell because she connects fragrances to both her thinking (He smells like sawdust and varnish - a carpenter.) and feeling (I smelled this when I was outdoors, in an orchard, playing with my friends - happy).

    I also like Avery Gilbert's book because he consistently argues that people can learn to smell more acutely, even learning to track. But I don't want to quote too much from his book. It's in print and everyone interested in the possibilities of smell should buy a copy.
  3. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    I do have a copy of Avery's book on my Kindle, but I haven't read it yet. I may just have to move it to the top of my reading pile!
  4. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Let me repeat my thanks to JaimeB for reviewing the book a while ago and pointing me to it after one of my earlier blogs. I find myself checking it very often. It's much broater than Emperor/Secret of Scent.
  5. Aiona's Avatar
    Fascinating! I hope I can check out these books at some time in the future!
    Updated 28th November 2009 at 09:39 AM by Aiona
  6. ECaruthers's Avatar
    See Avery Gilbert's Nov 30, 2009 blog entry for more, including a recent study. Dr. Gilbert refers to The Helen Keller Fallacy by which I think he means that blindness doesn't really increase or improve the odor receptors in the nose. But I believe he appreciates the brain's ability to learn and to interpret signals from those receptors as much as I do.


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