Hey, have we met? I’m your screen. We’ve spent the better part of your life together. You look at me all day, focused, without lifting your gaze. At an arm’s length, I tell you secrets that never crossed your mind, I show you lands that you never travelled to. Are they real? I assume this doesn’t matter to you.
But I’ll tell you something even more secret. I’ve been observing your nose for years, and over time, we’ve become so close that I am convinced of this: you are going back in evolution.
Oh, before you get cross with me, I don’t mean that you’re regressing. All I’m saying is that you’re approaching the ground, à la other primates.
For thousands of years you, proud human, you walked on this Earth with your nose up in the air. You climbed to the top of the food pyramid and you transformed it to an extravaganza of the senses. Your creations, gradually more complex, outperformed those of other creatures. The city, the school, the silver bird.
And then you got kind of bored. Your newest toy, the ‘smart phone’, powered by ‘artificial intelligence’, was going to be just one chapter in the story of world conquest. As you stopped at your tracks to marvel at this new innovation, your life became a feast for the eye balls, with the rest of your body comfortably stationary. And just like that, your nose curled downwards.
In this state, do you know who you remind me of? Your best non-primate mate. Yes, the dog. With its nose pointed to the ground, the dog has evolved to become the best companion to mankind, and its fame owes much to being a surrogate nose to humans. The dog’s capability to smell is more acute than that of human’s. Thus it has become the partner of choice for many essential tasks, such as hunting, guarding, food gathering and lately, assistance in laboratory testing.
Now, isn’t that canine nose good for a lot of things! But do you know what are the benefits of the human nose?
Fundamentally, the purpose of an olfactory sense is to help the human ascend and remain at the top of the food pyramid. I’m talking about survival skills. Catch a whiff of smoke and you’re looking around; “Where’s the fire, do I need to run?” That same signalling for danger is present when you open your fridge and it greets you with the olfactory time stamp of expired milk. Off to the bin! It’s funny how you’re able to know this, even if you never drank foul milk in your life.
But your nose serves many other purposes and in ways that are unique to the species. If you think about the fridge for example, it is down to the highly developed olfactory perception that you even have one! Eating the same thing everyday would be boring for you, and by keeping food fresh longer, the fridge enables choice – and room to be creative. Interestingly, when you’re thinking “this tastes good”, those flavours are actually drawn largely from the olfactory system. It is the sensory experience and therefore the pleasure of eating that makes dining an art. Sensory variability is also why it’s got such a central part in your culture, and what makes your culture different from another!
You register smells all the time, everywhere. And they can be more precise memories than a postcard. Freshly squeezed orange juice? That holiday in Spain, 10 AM on the hotel patio, under the palm trees, bright light. And it’s not just familiarity. Because scents can bring up a feeling, humans can tell entire stories using them as anchors. For example, consider the odour of baked cookies in a house that’s up for sale. This ‘ambiance’ triggers a time capsule that jets off to the future and delivers the promise of a lazy Sunday afternoon faster than you can say “What kind of energy rating does this property have?”.
But back to the dog and that downward nose. I’m convinced that your nose points this way for a reason. Once you give yourself a break from the sensory bombardment of modern technology, you’ll understand why.
Believe me, once you follow your nose, you’d be amazed at what you can notice around you, whether it’s in the forest taking a walk, or passing the bakery. The best way to get started is to play a game with your nose. Which tree is this? Is this the smell of a sourdough or a croissant? Throw in the other senses, too: Can I find a mushroom with my nose before my eyes see it? Or touch the leaves of a tree and try to guess its smell before sniffing the plant.
The best part about smells is that they are real. In the current digital era, artificial smells are quite rare. At least they are rarer and more real than than the artificial realities that flash up on your screen. Compare the kind of impact created by a digital image of a pizza, or a fresh smell of a wood-fire-roasted flavour bomb. You know which one is nearer – and likely your belly will tell you, too!
I, the screen, am a shiny surface, but life happens somewhere else, outside. There are signs, that people know this, too. An increasing amount of concern is being shown towards the threat of climate change. A reorientation beyond the screen is the best shot humans have at making sure they are not losing ‘sight’ of the environment. Oh, it’s not just a job for the eyes. If anything, it has to be a job for the nose, because if your nose can get cookie vibes from getting a mortgage, then global warming should be an easy one to solve, right?
So pack away the screen and go out there. You might just be reminded that ‘season’ can stand for more action than your average binge-worthy series!
Cover image: People using their phones. Photo by unsplash.com/@robin_rednine