Educate the sense of smell to get to know the world
Every company, in whatever sector it operates, is nowadays called to consider the social and cultural repercussions of its own activity in order to cultivate ties with communities, institutions and stakeholders, thus consolidating its values and its leadership over time. This holds true, even more so, for those who work in a field, such as the creation of fragrances, where culture, science, technology and millenary traditions are virtuously mixed. To define what “olfactory education” really means, it is useful to distinguish from the outset how it differs from the professional training of perfumers, and what positive reverberations it may have for the lives of people and of those human organizations we call companies.
The olfactory education is to be understood as the discipline allowing to refine sensory and cognitive abilities linked to the sense of smell, by promoting the development of this exceptional tool to get to know and interpret reality. Thence, it should rightfully become part of that program of “harmonious development of the person”, which represents the highest goal of our current didactic system.
To better understand the input of such discipline, we can refer to similar practices affecting other senses and that are already accepted and, as far as possible, integrated into school learning paths. Visual education, for example, enables us to learn to decode an image, and to acquire skills which the natural eye does not possess, favoring the formation of the so-called “visual thinking”.
In the same way, olfactory education is the sensory training track that sets us up to give meaning to the olfactory experience, to appreciate fragrances and any other form of expression impacting on this sense. It can precede specific training in a particular discipline (perfumery, oenology, etc.), but it is as well a valuable activity per se. In fact, it offers great benefits at physical, psychic and cognitive levels, empowering us to develop “olfactory thinking”.
The indispensable olfactory exercise
In the first years of our life, the experience with smells, flavors and scents, helps above all with learning to “decipher” the world, acknowledging and cataloging certain qualities of the environment. Such sensory activity increases the amount of synapses produced by the brain, contributing to the intelligence formation in an age when the cortex is especially plastic.
However, as we grow up, this “sensory phase” is considered completed, and consequently the chances for young people and adults to refine their own sense of smell diminish unless they choose a clear-cut professional direction.
What little is known, is that the olfactory system participates in the neuroplasticity of our central nervous system, and as a result the practice of actively smelling, and all the experiences and actions involving such sense, are essential for its full functioning. The sense of smell exercise has a tangible effect on our perceptive system. In experienced “noses”, we find a more developed olfactory bulb in terms of volume compared to that of people who do not have specific training. If it is possible through training to increase one's olfactory expertise, it is also true that this sense can atrophy, as it is observed among patients suffering from anosmia, hyposmia, neurological problems. Nevertheless, assiduous practice can improve some of these conditions, and even counteract the inevitable decay of the sense of smell due to advancing age.
The configuration of the olfactory bulb synapses, which determines our ability to sense and recognize smells, is the result of all the olfactory experiences we undergo throughout our lives. Hereupon, a constant exercise is indispensable to keep healthy and active such sensory capacity not only during childhood, yet all along our life.
The sense of smell for the person development
Olfactory education, addressed not to specialists, but to a heterogeneous population of people is a path still partly unknown and unexplored. Its effectiveness, at least at the beginning, is measured not so much in terms of “performance” (hard skills), even so as a psycho-physical benefit and maturation of qualities, and personal dispositions (soft skills).
It instills in us the aptitude and, more than anything, the power to autonomously evaluate what we perceive, to trust our abilities, most of all the natural ones, and to have total mastery in the verbal expression that allows us to bring our personal experience to the level of sharing and communication.
In this approach, not aimed at training in a distinct sector, but at developing such perceptive sphere in general, the focus shifts from the taxonomic classification of smells to our experience with them. Identifying and naming a large quantity of odorous substances certainly testifies to the efficacy of our practice, and yet it is even more important to learn to sense fragrances and scents in their richness, and to refine a linguistic strategy to express perceptions which, in the case of the sense of smell, are always imbued with subjective memories and emotions.
In the olfactory education sessions organized by the Orablu association that I have the honor to chair (born to promote the culture of the sense of smell and perfume, by organizing, among other things, Smell Festival dell’Olfatto, and other educational activities), the first thing which is transmitted is that all perceptions have equal dignity. A sommelier rightly asked me: “And then anything I sense is okay?”. Our answer is yes.
It is relevant to emphasize that olfactory education is not a practice linked to the scientific knowledge of an object (a wine, a perfume, a honey), and is not yet aimed at individuating a unanimously shared truth (“it is a Chianti”). Rather, it is an exercise in perceiving, an exploration of often non-measurable, we could say atmospheric, qualities of reality which are offered to our intellect as olfactory and at the same time mnemonic and affective impressions.
The sense of smell and the challenge of complexity
As a discipline, olfactory education thus takes a different route from that followed by training courses intended for achieving competences in specialized areas of study such as perfumery, oenology, brewing, sensory analysis, and so on.
The scientific rigor of their methodology imposes that the individual should step aside so as the subjective instances will interfere as little as possible with the inquiry.
The olfactory education is instead directed to the development of the person, and therefore the individual contribution is as much as possible enhanced and integrated in a knowledge process regarding the object “smell”, but in relation to our perceptive, cognitive and cultural specificity, which are equally significant.
Billions are the odorous molecules ―natural or man-made — that we can sense singularly or more often combined together in complex blends. Olfactory education puts us in a position to grasp the richness of this heterogeneous world, to appreciate its diverse nuances, to respect sensitivities not coinciding with ours, learning to manage complexity.
The acquisition of greater speed in recognizing smells, the ability to use both an analytical and evocative language, the development of a particular form of imagination, the olfactory one, are further appreciable benefits of the practice.
For this reason, along with books, pencils, paper sheets, colors, musical instruments, interactive whiteboards and computers, one day it would be beneficial to see appearing among the school items also some “olfactory materials”, in other words libraries of smells, for use by the younger generations.
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