Sensations we neglect

On a walk today, I tried paying more attention to some basic sensations I tend to take for granted: what a gust of wind felt like on my body and in my hair; how different parts of my legs felt moving me along the pavement; what noises went unnoticed in the background; what smells I got a brief whiff of before they quickly disappeared.

One of the first things that struck me, doing this, is how incredibly overwhelming sensations can actually be, how much there is going on at any given moment for us to possibly sense. It’s not surprising that our brains end up completely tuning out most of it most of the time – it would just be too much to deal with. As a particularly striking illustration of this, I realised I’d been doing this ‘noting’ of sensations for quite a while before I realised that I was completely neglecting entire senses – it took me about five minutes to start recognising smells, for example. And perhaps most surprisingly, it was sight that took me the longest to actually explicitly recognise – I’d probably been doing this for ten minutes or so before I realised I’d not had any higher level awareness of my visual experience whatsoever. Perhaps this is because sight is such a central aspect of our day-to-day, moment-to-moment experience, that to bring explicit attention to it – to actually note what it is that we’re seeing and how our visual experiences feel and vary – can seem kind of strange.

It was paying attention to smells, though, that felt most interesting and novel to me – I think it’s very easy to take our sense of smell for granted, but that smell actually has a huge amount to offer our experience. A certain smell can evoke incredibly strong emotions and memories in a way that our other sense can’t quite match: the whiff of someone’s perfume, or the smell of a certain building you used to work or live in. I remember going back to the building I lived in in the first year of university and being totally taken aback by how strong a sense of nostalgia I got from the smell of the building alone. If you’d asked me before that what the building smelled like, I couldn’t have given you any kind of answer, but somehow as soon as I was there it was incredibly familiar and evocative.

I ended up spending some time today, on this walk and afterwards, trying to pay more attention to smells. What was strange at first was that it was very hard for me to pick up on any distinctive smells – but slowly I would start to notice stronger smells from moment to moment, and subtler differences arising. The wafting smell of cooking as I walked past different houses – Indian spices one minute, the smell of baking the next. The smell of the moisturiser I’d put on my face moments earlier. A slight hint of the plants I walked past in the park, and then the smell of fumes coming from the road. When I walked in my front door, I realised just how distinctive the smell of my house was – something I’d never appreciated before, but which immediately made me think of the first time I’d walked in that door. Suddenly, I wanted to appreciate the smell of everything – thankfully no-one else was home, or I might have looked a bit of a lunatic. I smelled different foods in the fridge, thinking about which seemed pleasant to me and which unpleasant. I sniffed various different perfumes I own, each giving me different memories: different times in the recent past when I’d worn that perfume regularly, the people I’d been with, how I’d felt.

I spent about twice as long eating lunch as I normally do, wanting to smell everything I was eating, and taste it more too. I enjoyed what I was eating so much more and interestingly, suddenly felt way less need to put salt on everything – I realised salt wasn’t really enhancing the flavour so much as giving my mouth this strange immediate hit of sensation.I realised I like mustard a lot more than I thought (weird.)

I forgot about smell again later, though I kept coming back to it periodically, paying more attention. What this has made me realise is there’s so much more pleasure to be had in smell than I’d ever realised – and in all the subtle everyday sensations we take for granted more generally. It’s so easy for our brains to end up tuning these smells out, because there’s so much to take in and they’re not really all that ‘important’ – we can do without them. But – though I feel kind of like a massive hippy  saying this – I do think there’s a huge amount to be gained from re-appreciating something as subtly pleasurable as the sense of smell.

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