I was rushing down the street like a mad woman the other day, trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing. The entire day had felt like a really wet, smelly wool blanket draped over my shoulders - heavy, unpleasant and soggy. I'd even taken the wrong exit and messed up an appointment. Never mind the weather, my own self-absorbed busyness and underwhelming lack of progress had ground me to a pulp.
It sounds like a cliché as worn out as I was but, suddenly, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Out of the blue, I was feeling ten times better as the pungent aroma of a well-balanced curry managed to crash through everything, pick me up by the back of my neck, give me a little shake and gently set me down again. And I hadn't even known that an Indian restaurant was nearby.
The delicious smell didn't make me hungry or want to eat, though. It was enough just to stand there and suck it up literally with my nose, as well as figuratively, and savour my own private little happy moment.
Smell, as most of us know, is a huge and powerful part of taste. It "contributes to taste grandly," writes Diane Ackerman in her classic and wonderfully readable A Natural History of the Senses .
Just how much the two are intertwined, scientifically speaking, is hard to pin down: 75 per cent of taste depends on smell, says one source; "a lot," says another. But both senses are linked dynamically. Smells connect directly with the olfactory sensory neurons in our noses through our nostrils as well as through a channel that connects the roof of the throat region to the nose.
Simply think of smell and taste as sharing a common airshaft. As we chew, food aromas rise up through this channel into our noses.
Our sense of smell is also influenced by what's known as the common chemical sense, which involves thousands of nerve endings on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat, producing all the boo-hoo-hoo tears when you slice an onion and the cooling sensations from peppermint tea.
Then there are the components of touch and taste, texture and taste, culture and taste, ritual and taste, memory and taste, and the direct action of taste buds themselves. Ten thousand of the little guys are located in the mouth of a normal adult, which, according to Ackerman, look like volcanoes on Mars under an electron microscope. By comparison parrots have only about 400 taste buds while cows and rabbits have a surprisingly large number (25,000 and 17,000 respectively).