Saturday, June 19, 2010

Celebrating the senses

I listened to NPR's "The Splendid Table" today, midway through, and the topic was quite interesting. A cook and author of "Remembering Smell" named Bonnie Blodgett was on the show. She had an accident that caused her to lose her sense of smell for many months (fortunately, her brain "regrew" her olfactory senses and she recovered).

Blodgett is a cook, so you might expect that her loss of smell would be especially difficult. But it made me think about how essential all of our senses are to our experience of life, and how disabling it is (or can be) to lose any sense. I don't mean to say that people who are blind or deaf have a less rich experience of life, but they certainly are aware of being profoundly different from those who have that sense. They do need to compensate for its loss, and the brain has amazing ways of accomplishing that.

We seem to take our senses for granted. If you had to pick one to lose, of the five -- sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste -- wouldn't we all be willing to lose our taste buds? I don't know how that would be, truly. The taste buds seem almost like the planet that was de-planetized, Pluto -- not quite a legitimate sense because they are so relatively minor. The sense of smell seems to play such a major role in tasting food that losing the taste buds might not be so devastating. But losing any other sense would cause a major disconnect from the physical world that a person would need to work to overcome.

For example, in losing the sense of smell, Blodgett recounted times when it was an unexpected loss: no longer being able to smell the unique scent of her grandfather's clothing, or a library. She said the whole experience was devastating. She no longer wanted to cook, of course, and the pleasure of eating was largely gone. It would be like having a terrible, permanent cold, and we all know how miserable that is. Smell is closely linked to memory. We've all had the experience of smelling something that instantly recalled a different place and time, or a loved one.

Our senses connect us to this world, as I've said, and as we age, they grow dull. The elderly often suffer a partial or complete loss of vision and/or hearing, and you can see how, often, they drift more away from this world and existence when it happens.I wonder why many of us suffer so many losses as we age. Perhaps it gets us ready to leave entirely, and softens that blow.

So, part of being in touch with moment-to-moment existence is quite literally being "in touch" through the senses, fully aware of the amazing sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and even the salty, sweet, sour, and bitter tastes. Every day brings with it new wonders.

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