My good friend and co-worker, Mike, and I loved to periodically play practical jokes on each other. According to my accounting, Mike was due.
After careful consideration, I decided to play the olfactory card. Sunday morning, I purchased an entire dead fish, about a foot long, then returned to the office where I duct taped it under Mike’s desk chair and closed the door. It already smelled somewhat, and I was sure that by the next day it would be wonderfully ripe.
Monday morning, I came to work early to check the results. I was very pleased. The place stank like an abandoned fish market. It would take hours to air out.
At 8:00 am Mike arrived, entered his office, and…said nothing. Complete silence. I assumed he quickly located the fish and tossed it, but his lack of response really annoyed me.
As luck would have it, at 11:00 the Workers Compensation Auditor arrived at my friend’s office for an unscheduled annual review. He took his usual place at a small table in the corner of Mike’s office. By noon he was done. “Poor guy,” I thought as he hurried out the side entrance with a white hanky over his face.
It may have only been my imagination, but the normal stream of foot traffic into Mike’s office seemed to have lessened dramatically. I couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly as the day progressed, but my friend’s lack of any obvious response still concerned me. I thought, “He just doesn’t want to admit that I got him good.”
At about thirty minutes to closing, he suddenly got up and headed out of the office. On the way out, he popped his head in my door and casually said, “Hey Kim, I’m leaving a little early today. I picked up a really bad head cold last night and my nose is all stuffed up. See you tomorrow.”
Bad timing. He could not smell a thing; he would not have caught the scent even if the fish was taped to his nose. Bitterly disappointed, I retrieved the carcass and tossed it in the outside dumpster.
Even today, the right odor at the Supermarket Seafood Department can take me back all those years as if it was yesterday – the office, the chair, the fish, the duct tape, the auditor.
Smell is a very powerful sense. It is certainly a brilliant gift from God. He created it for us so that we could get the most out of life. The ability to smell is one of the key ways that we are able to engage with our environment.
When mankind was first created, Christ came up with an incredibly intricate design for the olfactory system. Our noses are multi-purpose organs. They warm and moisten air that we inhale. They clean up dirt, pollen, and other unwanted items (even the occasional bug) by use of nose hairs lining the inner walls. Noses also play a major role in helping us taste foods.
The primary role of noses is, of course, to smell and detect odors and scents. Richard Axel and Linda Buck won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in 1991 that revealed how the olfactory system works.
What we smell are the molecules that are emitted from things around us. Roses emit molecules. Oranges emit molecules. Perfume and aftershave give off molecules. People emit odor molecules. These molecules become airborne and some of them drift into our nostrils as we inhale. Once trapped inside, they make their way into the upper reaches of our nasal passages.
These odor molecules eventually arrive at a postage-stamp sized area packed with millions of neurons called olfactory receptors each of which specializes in certain types of molecules.
Once connected to their preferred molecules, the receptors send an electrical signal to the brain. It is up to the brain to recognize each type of signal and conclude that, for instance, “It must be molecules from an orange.”
Most of the time we experience “complex aromas” that are formed when many different aroma molecules arrive at different receptors at the same time. In that case, our brain can no longer distinguish individual scents and it creates a new compound aroma, a mosaic of odor, that is unlike any of the individual scents.
Surprisingly, one of mankind’s favorite aromas is made up of some very unlikely odors. Carrie Arnold observes:
The individual aroma molecules in roasted cacao beans (the primary ingredient of chocolate) can smell of everything from cooked cabbage to human sweat to raw beef fat. Together, more than 600 of these flavor compounds blend together in just the right combination to yield the taste and scent of what we all call chocolate.
Odor signals also travel to the Limbic system in the brain that deals with emotions, memories, and learning. Just before we put the first slice of pizza we ever eat into our mouth, our nose gets a whiff and forever matches what it smelled with what it tasted like, what our eyes saw, and what our ears heard. We also remember whether the experience felt pleasurable or not. The linkage with memory is why certain smells today can evoke memories of events that happened many years ago. The connection to emotions is also why smells can significantly affect our moods.
Advertisers love to exploit the linkage of smells and moods. There is a whole group of marketing companies around now that try to figure out how smells can motivate us to buy everything from food to clothing. One savvy pastor used the smell/mood connection to make a sermon illustration come alive. As he spoke about popcorn, some of the members were directing the odor of freshly cooked popcorn into the ventilation system where it then wafted over the delighted congregation.
Since the 1920’s, it was generally thought that humans could detect about 10,000 distinct odors. As it turns out, that number was only based on a theoretical estimate and not on hard data.
Recently, a team of researchers led by Dr. Andreas Keller from Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior set out to determine the actual number. Their startling findings were published in the journal Science on March 21, 2014. Based on rigorous investigation, they discovered that humans are actually able to distinguish more than one trillion different scents!
The number “trillion” is so large it is beyond imagining. If someone offered you one trillion dollars on the condition that you had to count it first, you would die long before you were able to collect. In fact, if someone counted non-stop, twenty-four hours a day, every day, it would take them over 31,000 years to get to one trillion!
Understanding the intricacy and complexity of our olfactory system can help us become more conscious of the aromas around us and motivate us to make better use of our noses to proactively seek out and experience new smells. We could even take our own “Aroma Safaris,” especially with children. I love to take a few moments in the supermarket to sniff the new scented soaps on display.
The Scriptures have much to say about aromas. One of the most aromatic chapters in the Bible is found in Exodus 30 where God provides the recipes for the anointing oil used in the Old Testament Sanctuary and incense to be burned on an altar.
God spoke to Moses: "Take the best spices: twelve and a half pounds of liquid myrrh; half that much, six and a quarter pounds, of fragrant cinnamon; six and a quarter pounds of fragrant cane; twelve and a half pounds of cassia…and a gallon of olive oil. Make these into a holy anointing oil, a perfumer's skillful blend.” (Exodus 30:22-25 The Message)
God spoke to Moses: "Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha, galbanum—and add pure frankincense. Mix the spices in equal proportions to make an aromatic incense.” (Exodus 30: 34-35 The Message)
The Bible also talks about other aromatics as well such as hyssop and spikenard ointment. God certainly loves fragrant smells! No wonder He gave us noses to share the joy.
I love the passage in Ezekiel 20:41 where God compares His followers to a very pleasant smell. He says, “I will accept you as a sweet aroma.” He is essentially saying, “When I think of you it reminds me of the sweetest of aromas, like apple pie or a rose petal.”
In New Testament times, when the Apostle Paul sent a letter to the church members in the city of Philippi, he compared their generosity to a marvelous fragrance.
And now I have it all—and keep getting more! The gifts you sent with Epaphroditus were more than enough, like a sweet-smelling sacrifice roasting on the altar, filling the air with fragrance, pleasing God to no end. (Phil 4:18 Message)
In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, people’s prayers are compared to bowls chock full of incense.
An interesting way to explore life in Bible times is to try to imagine what smells were present during various events: the smell of the temple area in Old Testament times with the butchering of thousands of animals and the flowing channels of spilled blood, the portico in Jesus’ day where unkempt, crippled, homeless people spent their days and one was healed by Christ after thirty eight years of paralysis, the aroma of dirty feet and Passover foods in the upper room, the sweet scent of olive trees and crisp night air in the Garden of Gethsemane, the smell of fear, dried perspiration, old abandoned clothing on Calvary, the stench from a nearby garbage dump called Gehenna, and the damp, musty smell of the rock grave where the Lord was buried.
Exploring scientific subjects like the sense of smell creates an opportunity to see Jesus from a new, modern perspective. We know that at age twelve Christ was already a theological wonder, expounding in the temple on the Old Testament scriptures that He Himself inspired. For eighteen more years, He was a master builder. Starting at age thirty, He became a world-renowned teacher and healer. Today, I imagine Him as a celebrated scientist, wearing a white lab coat, lecturing to a standing room-only crowd of eminent neuroscientists and biologists at Harvard Medical School about the olfactory system that He created.
Think of a memorable aroma from your childhood. Why do you think it lingers in your memory?
Do you take time to absorb the aroma of food before you eat it?
What aromas affect your moods? What smells do you find relaxing? How?
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations.
Photo by Josemdelaa on Pixabay/ Spectrum
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.