We are often embarrassed by the protruding olfactory equipment on our faces. But noses shape our loves, lives and memories like no other part of the bodyby AL Kennedy / December 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
In Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” a civil servant called Kovalyov wakes one morning to discover his nose is missing; in its place there’s only a smooth, flat space. Without a nose, Kovalyov finds he can’t work, can’t eat, he’s scared even to go outside. As for his girlfriends—well he discovers that noselessness, apart from being a kind of facelessness, seems to imply other, lower, deficits. Worse still, freed from Kovalyov, his nose is swanning around St Petersburg dressed for success in a “gold-braided, high-collared uniform, buckskin breeches, and cockaded hat.”
Gogol himself had a famously generous nose—but this tale is less a personal statement and more an absurdist satire on tsarist Russia’s obsession with rank. Still, there’s plenty of nose-related wisdom here. Humans may be hard-wired to love infantile faces—ones with big eyes, big foreheads and not much nose—but we all have multiple reasons to treasure our noses.
They go bravely before us throughout our lives, gently drooping and appearing to grow as time passes, perhaps to indicate increasing maturity and resourcefulness. The nose helps to form our expressions and our faces seem so strange to us if we lose or damage them that we have a long history of fashioning cosmetic replacements. Sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe had a brass one. British troops disfigured in the First World War were supplied with carefully painted tin noses and rudimentary skin grafts. The earliest recorded graft—replacing the tip of a nose—was achieved in India around 1795. Plastic surgery can now do a great deal to create or reconstruct our noses. The immense popularity of elective rhinoplasties—nose jobs—indicates how important this most public organ’s perceived perfection is to our self-esteem.
The sense of smell our nose enables conjures memories faster than conscious thought and puts flavour in our meals. Much of what we taste actually comes from scent. Try eating an apple while, for example, smelling petrol if you don’t believe me. Patients who develop anosmia, an inability to smell caused by accident or disease, will generally report diminished appetite and somewhat joyless meals. Smell can change your mind. Studies have shown that inhaling the scent of garbage can affect moral judgments and make you more politically conservative. Being forced to smell warmed vanilla by a wily estate agent as you view a house may make you think—“Mm, I must buy this apartment—it smells of cake and happy childhoods.” Each inhalation gives us breath to speak, sing, swear, live. Our sensitive olfactory bulbs can register chemical upon chemical, letting our brains enjoy anything from the isomers of rose oxide in a bouquet to the hundreds of compounds in the smell of coffee.
We actually have four nostrils, the two external and two internal right at the back of the nasal cavity by the entrance to the throat. The nostrils oscillate their action to help make sense of complicated scents and their location. The external nostrils are equipped with something like a thousand hairs apiece. These are vibrissae—they’re what used to be our whiskers. They help us cleanse each inhalation, as does mucus. Propelled by microscopic cilia on the surface of the cells lining the nose, our mucus contains chemicals to fight disease and resist pollen. And, all day, every day our noses humidify up to 14,000 litres of air so we can breathe it more efficiently and comfortably. Kovalyov was right to fear leaving home without a nose.
Out in the world I rely on my nose to prevent social disaster. I have pathetic facial recognition, but a brief encounter with someone’s scent will fix them in my memory for years. But repeatedly explaining my disability has revealed to me that any reference to smell can be socially disastrous. Smell is personal, animal, basic. Simply mentioning it can provoke uneasy laughter, if not hysteria. And it’s not unusual to find our complex, helpful, wonderful noses reduced to a punch line.
We laugh at noses. The red nose is the only part of a clown that isn’t scary. Even without the rest of the outfit it can add instant jollity. This may be a formalised way of mocking the noses, purplish with broken capillaries that we associate with habitual drunkenness, homeless tramping, or hard outdoor labour. When clowns seem threatening, perhaps it’s because they’re effectively the unruly poor coming to get us.
The Marx brothers were immensely talented comedians, but their imposing noses gave them a head start. Joke shops still sell Groucho glasses—or beaglepusses—with the plastic nose attached. An iconic nose has outlived its owner. Einstein was a genius and a great communicator—but is his lasting reputation all down to the enthralling attractions of theoretical physics? Don’t we, just a little, find his mankind-dwarfing, imagination-bending concepts warm and memorable because of his amiable, noticeable nose? Cyrano de Bergerac, obscure author of the world’s first science-fiction novels, had, as far as we know, an above-average nose, forging ahead through duels, debates and flights of fancy. Edmond Rostand’s drama about him enlarges Cyrano’s nose and creates an unforgettable hero. Cyrano’s drama is unspeakably tragic, in part to stop us laughing too much at that nose—laughing as we do when we see Jimmy Durante sing a tender love song, or Woody Allen holding a gun to all that’s left of a dictator—the nose—in his futuristic comedy Sleeper.
Looking down and turning up
And we don’t just mock noses—we can seem to hate them. Their prominence apparently offends us. Inappropriate curiosity pokes them into things. Television medical dramas capitalise on actors’ alluring eyes by covering their unromantic noses with surgical masks. The cliché of enticingly veiled female beauty operates in similar territory. The nose is what we look down, or turn up. Or else we simply, dumbly follow it.
While our first and simplest ideas for smell are linked with animal intimacies (our mother’s skin, her hair), they’re more often for smells that are viscerally unpleasant—and quite possibly our fault. Sigmund Freud thought that smell was primitive, inextricably linked with the anal stage of development. Even neutral words for the quality of having scent—smelling—aren’t that neutral. As you’ll discover if you tell your beloved “Darling, you smell…” even if the end of that sentence is “of sweetshops and paradise,” its start may have already shattered a budding relationship. Humans are animals but don’t want to smell like them. Billion-dollar industries exist to save us from body odour, foot odour, bad breath, sweat. Before we knew about microbes, we even blamed infections on bad smells—“miasmas.” And if neutral words for smell are severely limited, words for bad smells are apparently unlimited: stink, stench, reek, pong, honk, hum, ming—das stinkt, eso apesta, ça pue, это воняет.
There’s a neurological reason for our bias. Smells associated with disgust take a shortcut through the amygdala—part of the brain’s very emotional, unnuanced limbic system. They reach us at a basic, animal level. More pleasant or neutral smells are processed in our cortex—the clever, fancily evolved layer that lets us invent string cheese and deodorant and rise above emotional involvement with aromas. Evolutionarily speaking, bad smells are about danger, decomposition, fear, pain, fleeing, fighting—it’s important to be able to detect them and react swiftly. When we talk about something morally disgusting we may say it has a bad smell, it stinks, and that’s a clue that our brains process metaphorical disgust the same way they process the real kind.
So disturbing smells get VIP attention in case they’re going to kill us but everything else? Smell is so important to survival that it has many connections to parts of the brain that evolved early, like the limbic system and the brain stem. Perhaps we treat it like an unwelcome intruder because it operates deep within us, beneath our control over our thinking. And smell has relatively few connections to the left neo-cortex, where we keep our words. This means our power to describe smells that aren’t potentially fatal is pretty stunted. The orchestral blending of complex scents in a forest at dawn is… nice? Countryish? Foresty? Chocolate smells—of chocolate. Smells don’t have a separate vocabulary, even for scent sophisticates; noses who make a living out of categorising wines or perfumes will describe scents and flavours in terms of other things: hints of sandalwood and eggshell, an aftertaste of tarmac and so forth.
We can pick out sharpness, sweetness, acridity and not that much beyond. Only a few smell-sensitive cultures—often developed in light-deprived environments—have a range of other smell words. Tribes in the Andaman Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Amazon have terms for subtly connected smell groups. For them a scent can clearly resemble others in a scent group, the way that blue sky, a blue police box and baby blue are all different, but still identifiably blue. Some researchers think smell-centredness may be an early trait from our Denisovan ancestors, still carried in some humans’ DNA. I myself long for a world where smells are allowed to form palettes, families, proud dictionaries of aroma. Many languages do have a word for one complex smell so universal and useful it has stayed with us, perhaps from our days as hunter-gatherers. In English the term is petrichor—the smell that lets us know when it’s going to rain.
It has been suggested by some academics, of course, that peoples prioritising a “primitive” sense may be especially primitive, but that could be our anti-smell bias talking. Sniffing, scenting, allowing an inrush of information that speaks to us without words—it’s not appealing to everyone. It can seem more suited to dogs or at least hairier primates than homo sapiens. Throughout the ages those with money and power have made sure not to smell like the poor and not to build houses downwind of them. Civilisation has consistently been associated with not smelling, or certainly not smelling natural. The doggedly cerebral and moderate Plato even thought use of perfumes led to effeminacy and depravity. Kant also took against smell. The nose has been associated with all that’s indecorous, dirty—even helplessly sexy—and we’ve laughed at it in revenge.
Sniffing out the past
We should, of course, have thanked it. When early 20th-century neuroscientists were trying to understand brain structures, they dissected rats and noted the massive olfactory bulbs with which the rats had, until recently, been trying to understand the neuroscientists. Intimately linked to these bulbs was an area of the rat brain initially christened the rhinencephalon—the nose brain, what we now call the limbic system in rats and humans. It’s not just associated with tripping alarms, states of arousal and processing emotion; it helps create our memories. That’s why certain scents aren’t just animal invaders: they’re time travel, they’re joy, they’re home, they’re heartbreak.
I’ll never forget, years after his death, being passed on the street by a man wearing my grandfather’s aftershave. For one deep moment I could summon that voice, that face, being folded in those arms again. A gift of the nose.
Although, yes, I’ll admit some of the gifts can seem unsettling. It’s OK that Mrs Rat can know by scent that now is the time to make rat babies with that male rat over there, or can recognise her relatives, including those rat babies. Mrs Rat may even co-ordinate her reproductive cycle with her close lady rat neighbours, because they’ve inhaled each other’s pheromones. We humans (even me) rely most on vision—the cool, sophisticated fashion photographer among the senses. But humans recognise relatives and choose mates by scent. They can detect fertility and even specific genes. We may find a face more attractive depending on how it smells, and we tend to choose perfumes that enhance our own natural blend of scents. We spend a fortune trying to obliterate our natural smells, but pheromones still change our moods, our focus levels and how we perceive each other, and can synchronise women’s menstrual cycles. For centuries phallic masks and racy nose-related humour helped us deal with that weirdly sexy something about the nose. We now know scent prepares us for intimacy and maintains it—the nose even contains erectile tissue. And the people with whom we mate, form relationships? We love their scents, up close; our bodies continue each other in each breath. No wonder the artfully wild and passionate Romantic movement embraced scent.
Our noses give us breath, life: the perfume of our children’s skin, or of our lover’s tenderness, the hallway scent of being home, the pleasure in every bite, the power to turn back time. So no more jokes, or shaming—let us carry our noses ahead of us with pride.
This essay appears in “Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body,” published by Profile Books and the Wellcome Collection.