How Will This Year Smell?

The smells coming from the kitchen as I write are wonderful. I look forward to dinner.

It’s New Year’s Day, 2022, and I am wrestling with my story of how we got here.It’s hard to piece together: has my understanding of how the world works always been an illusion (and I’m just learning difficult new "realities"), or has the notion of the Common Good recently been fundamentally discarded?

Perhaps mostly illusion, at least according to neuroscience, which suggests that perception of reality is sculpted by attention, expectation, and memory.

Clearly, I had an irrational expectation of how people in public service would react to a global catastrophe. And, naively, I didn’t expect disaster to be justification for wholesale abandonment of the vulnerable and politically powerless. I didn’t expect such overwhelming bi-partisan acquiescence to power and wealth. Frankly, it has shaken my view of the world. What else am I missing?

And the pandemic – more than ever – still rages. At the EEGer office in Florida, we’ve been remote since Spring 2020, and online meetings are just how we work now. Especially with a toddler, I’ve been assiduous about masking, distancing, and reducing in-person interactions. We’ve been lucky. When a random tick bite this summer required me to be in the hospital for several days with Lyme disease, the hospital was not in a state of overwhelm, as many now are.

Threatened from all sides, overcome with frustration at the complexity of it all, the uncertainty of tomorrow leads to an unbearable level of cognitive dissonance. Then powerful voices offer an enemy, an understandable story, an invitation to join a community fighting evil. The temptation is understandable.

Or there is the thorny, slow slog of being honest, ethical, and empathic. On this path, there seem to be few easy answers. And safety in the pandemic comes at a cost. Screens remove most nonverbal cues. We enjoy fewer informal, impromptu interactions. We miss out on the communication in body language, touch, and smell.

Smell is especially critical because, unlike sight and hearing, its signals bypass the thalamic relay. So what we smell is more immediately processed by the amygdala and hippocampus, with a more direct link to emotion and memory. This has important implications, affecting multiple systems in ways of which we are only dimly aware.

For example, in this study pleasant smells that trigger positive nostalgia (“the Proust phenomenon”) were found to improve mood, boost immune response, and benefit other psychological and physiological measures. Smell may be an important part of self-regulation; it has been used to increase slow wave relaxation, reduce cravings, and induce slow, deep breathing.

This year we may find deep breathing an important survival tactic. May the year bring you insight, rewarding work, supportive friends, and delicious smells!



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