Facebook Pixel
Main SR only Anker

Scents and Sensuality

The Dian Hanson column

The 1903 farmhouse, site of my Proustian holiday
The 1903 farmhouse, site of my Proustian holiday
I’ve always identified as a sensualist, a person who delights in physical sensation. I value touch, taste, sight, sound, and scent as much or more than purely intellectual stimulation. I am also an urban dweller, having spent most of my life from age 25 to the present in New York or Los Angeles, seldom thinking about the difference between sensual experience in the city and the country. This was brought home on a recent trip visiting relatives who live on a rural island off the north Pacific coast.

In the city visual input amounts to chaotic excess. For sensitive people this sensory overload can trigger the fight or flight response, a hyper-stimulation of the brain’s amygdala, followed by increased adrenaline production, experienced as anxiety, panic or emotional shutdown. For others the increased adrenaline is perceived as energy and excitement, as feeling more alert and alive. This is how it’s generally affected me.

The urban auditory experience is similar. Cities are loud, with rumbling traffic, horns and sirens and the constant background pollution of human voices. City-born people often can’t sleep in a quiet environment and find the sounds of nature as disturbing as the country-born find the city’s cacophony. Again, for many, it adds to the excitement, a sensual adrenaline high.

Taste, of course, is nurtured for profit in urban centers. Restaurant competition results in quality and variety unfeasible elsewhere. Exotic delicacies arrive daily at international airports, and robust immigrant communities transform them into cuisine unknown to rural dwellers. All for a price. The best of everything goes to the restaurants; in supermarkets produce arrives hard and green to be artificially ripened into tasteless imitations of nature. Still, those restaurants enhance the sensual delight of the city.

Touch is a touchy issue in urban centers. It’s pretty hard not to be touched inappropriately going about daily life in New York. On sidewalks and public transportation you are constantly bumped and jostled by the sheer mass of strangers. When I arrived there at age 24, in the 1970s, I was also intentionally touched by men on the streets and subways, emboldened because they could flee undetected into the sheer mass. None of this was sensually pleasant, but enforced proximity to others seems to make New Yorkers more comfortable with touch, and it was there that I learned to enjoy hugging and kissing friends, and how important affection is for physical and mental health. Gentle touch from trusted others causes the brain to release oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Touch can lower blood pressure and slow a racing heart. A 1915 survey of orphanage mortality found most children lost before age two died from failure to thrive, caused by absence of touch and affection, an incredibly sad statistic. Societies where children receive high levels of affection have low levels of adult aggression, while societies with low levels of affection result in high levels of adult aggression. Covid restrictions isolated many, raising not just rates of depression and anxiety, but of crime, especially domestic violence by people cut off from social support systems. Get your hugs in.

But then we come to smell. I’ve never really considered how we fight this sense in the city. LA is better than New York in that the mild weather allows flowers to flourish year-round, masking many of the urban odors. New York in the summer is a stew of olfactory offense. Exhaust, perspiration, rotting garbage, urine, and feces, somehow made worse by any hint of sweetness. We become mouth-breathers in the city, shutting down our most primitive sense, the only one going straight to the limbic system, seat of memory and emotion. Thus we lose those profound Proustian moments, the ones that trigger long-buried memories and their attendant emotions.

I reclaimed my nose on the island. Growing up in Seattle’s suburbs I logged smells unique to the Pacific Northwest. The island is north of there, more Canada than U.S., with few people, few cars, and no industry. The land is verdant with grasses, flowers, wild berries, northern undergrowth, and fir trees. The surrounding waters are thick with kelp, the rocks shelter tide pools.

It all smelled delicious.

I can’t remember breathing ever feeling so good. The scents were sweet, sour, salty, and acrid, yet all were wonderful; a natural affinity between nose and nature forgotten over long decades of city life. Memories were stirred, the madeleines savored. And all that was required was sitting in the sun on the steps of a weathered old farmhouse and inhaling.

Sensuality is indeed the alpha pleasure.

Do you have comments or questions? Email Dian at askdian@taschen.com