Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Av 5763 - August 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

The Olfactory System
by A. Ross, M.Ed.

Of the five senses, the sense of smell is the least appreciated. When a child is born, we test for sight and hearing. At first, it is just to ascertain that these senses function. Sensory integration, which means the correct functioning of the senses, is not noticed till later. There have been articles in this paper about sensory integrative dysfunction with regard to sight, hearing and touch.

An occupational therapist who did much research on the subject describes sensory information as food for the brain. She asserts that difficulty in organizing sensory information is like indigestion, or perhaps a traffic jam. When the senses function smoothly, the impulses flow to the brain swiftly and easily. When there is some sensory dysfunction, either too much or too little, the impulses get `tied up in the traffic' and certain parts of the brain do not get the information they need to do their job.

Most attention is paid to sight and hearing, and to the correction of these senses if need be. Touch has started to gain importance, with more and more research being done in this field. It is common knowledge that taste and smell are closely connected. The taste buds of the tongue identify the taste, the nerves in the nose identify the smell. Both sensations are comunicated to the brain, which combines the information to recognize and appreciate flavors. Sour, sweet, bitter and salt, can be recognized without the sense of smell.

If someone remarks wryly that something `tastes of petrol,' it does not mean that he has ever tasted petrol [gasoline]. Food often doesn't taste right to people who have a cold. Flu can temporarily damage the cells which sense smell. It might be days or even weeks till the nerves recover fully. Anosmia is the fancy name for the loss or reduction in the sense of smell. There are very few people who are born without the sense of smell, although, as with the other senses, some have a more acute sense of smell than others. Some children actually suffer in school if their neighbor does not smell as fresh as he should! They have to learn to live with this disability.

As people age, they commonly experience progressive impairment in all their senses. The most publicized sensory losses are sight and hearing. Olfactory loss is no exception. The food tastes bland and people lose interest in eating. Relatives, or the sufferers themselves, have to try and devise ways to make eating enjoyable again. Eating a hot meal together with a cold salad allows for different temperatures to be experienced at the same time. Raw and partially cooked vegetables combined with fully cooked vegetables allow the person to experience, enjoy and compare the different textures. For those who enjoy it, hot spicy food causes sensations on the tongue.

Unlike animals who have whiskers, and some who do not, humans do not need the sense of smell for survival. However, the sense of smell can protect people and it also makes life far more enjoyable. (No, not always. Adults with an overdeveloped olfactory sense suffer as much as children who have the same complaint!) The sense of smell is not only important for taste but is also essential for detecting gas leaks, smoke, or if the food is still good. Indeed, old people living alone who suffer from anosmia are in real danger of poisoning themselves with spoiled food.

Because anosmia results from an olfactory deficit, there is usally a loss of taste. An elderly person probably notices that food is tasteless before s/he notices the reduction in a sense of smell. The desire for food is diminished because the tantalizing smells are not there. Moreover, the sufferer knows that the food is not as tasty as it used to be, and is inclined to skip meals altogether.

Dovid Hamelech mentions this phenomenon in Tehillim 107:18, at the same time advising us to appreciate all our faculties and publicize our gratitude.

This is part of the kapporos text: "Their soul abhors all foods and they reach the gates of death." He then adds, "Give thanks to Hashem for His kindness, and proclaim His wonders to the sons of man."


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