Monday, November 16, 2020

Time Travel


I don't catch a whiff of cigar smoke very often these days, but I recently passed a couple of men enjoying stogies over glasses of wine and the scent carried me instantly back to my youth, playing baseball under the lights at Legion Field in Corvallis, Oregon. There was always a fan or two smoking a cigar in the stands and in an instant, my mind was transported over four decades back in time, taken there by the memories attached to that particular hot, sweet smoke.

Odor is a well-known trigger for time travel. Just the right whiff of rosemary or gasoline or a freshly mown lawn can send our minds into the the past and for a moment, however brief, we are someplace else. I've found that this happens more and more as I've aged. I imagine that this is likely because the more I've lived, the more past I've created.

One of my loved ones lost her sense of smell in her early 60's. Not long after that, she began to lose some of her memories, the beginning of the cruel process of dementia. I have no way of knowing if the two things are connected, but it seems possible given how powerfully, and uncontrollably, odor yanks us into our memories. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe scent is how we pull the past into the present.

Olfactory cues are vital to the formation of the bond between mothers and their newborns and are probably at least as important as the sense of touch to normal development. 

Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalk. Some say that we think because we smelled. Scientists have experimented with odors as a way of improving memorization in students, finding that test scores can be improved by studying for a test while smelling a certain odor, say rosemary, then re-introducing that odor during subsequent test taking. Although those "successes" in locking in memories through scent have so far been found to be short-term, whereas we all know that deep olfactory learning can last a lifetime. 

As a preschool teacher who has worked his entire career in cooperative classrooms occupied by both children and their parents, I've often been made aware of the difference between the way children and adults perceive odors. I once accidentally made a batch of play dough with some oil that had been infused with rotting fruit, the product of a classroom experiment. Adults could barely stand to be in the classroom for more than a few minutes at a time because of the stench, whereas the kids delighted in their "stink dough," making "stink cookies" and "stink muffins" with which to gross out their parents, seemingly unbothered by the foulness. Adults, not children, complain about the odors of cleaning products or Sharpie markers or the old coffee grounds with which we sometimes play in our sensory table. The children can smell the odors, remark on them, discuss them, even labelled them as "yucky," but that doesn't cause them to keep their distance or crack windows. Indeed, when I suggested we throw out the "stink dough" the kids objected, which is why we played with it for a full week, even as their parents gagged.

Our sense of smell changes as we age, improving until about the age of eight, then beginning to decline in our late teens, although there are some scents that young children can't detect that adults can. There are certainly biological factors at work, but I also imagine that some of the difference, especially when it comes to odor aversion, comes from the fact that children simply do not have as much experience with odors as adults. We are bothered by the places in the past where certain scents take us, whereas our children know these odors only in the present tense. 

There is so much we don't know about our sense of smell, but it seems obvious that it is essential to education and development. Most schools focus on learning through looking and listening: sight and hearing. More progressive schools value the importance of "hands on learning," the sense of touch. Taste tends to be almost as much of an afterthought as scent, and that's understandable given how closely related they are, yet from a biological perspective they are foundational to human learning and ought not be ignored.

Most adults today would pull a young child away from a man smoking a cigar and I would do the same. Yet as an adult, I'm happy my own parents left me to experience that scent from the stands at Legion Field as place I can return today with just a whiff.

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