Sensory Feasts

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”    Vladimir Nabokov

Sometimes we should express our gratitude for the small and simple things like the scent of the rain, the taste of your favorite food, or the sound of a loved one’s voice.”   Joseph B. Wirthlin

This past year has given us all plenty of opportunity to be grateful for all the gifts and graces we continue to enjoy.  So much has been taken from too many of us, but so much good remains, too.

The human body’s complete capabilities are beyond understanding to most of us, but not beyond appreciation.  And, the more we focus on the good, the more the good seems to multiply.  The more we consider how amazing the human body is, the more we can feel positive about what our own human bodies do for us. 

Our five senses provide us with limitless incoming sensory joy.  Unfortunately, two of these five—smell and taste—have been assaulted beyond belief by COVID. “I had COVID,” a 55-year-old friend recently told me.  “I did fine, I got over it, and a week later, my smell and taste went south.  Everything tastes different now, and I can’t enjoy the foods I once did. I am hopeful that it will get better.”

There are thousands, if not millions of stories similar to this in the last year.  Like so many other abilities, we take them for granted until they are gone.

The senses of sight and hearing seem to be the ones we think about most, perhaps because they affect our functioning the most.   My aunt, who was blind her entire life, said she would rather be blind than deaf, because if you are deaf, you are cut off from the world. 

My husband’s brother, who is functionally deaf, says he would rather be deaf than blind.  While he does have a disability, it is not a handicap for him.  He leads a full life with his family, his work and his hobbies.  “I don’t have to listen to the crap,” he says. 

Clearly, both have found the positive in their difficult situations. 

Without realizing it, we take in literally thousands of incoming sensory stimuli from all of our senses.  However, our brains are adept at filtering out the non-essential, and delivering only the important sensory messages to our brain.  If it didn’t, we would literally be overwhelmed. 

This explains why, when you are in a crowd, and someone across the room speaks your name, you hear it, without hearing all the other noise.  It also explains why a mother wakes up at the slightest peep her new baby makes, but sleeps through the thunderstorm.  We take in all the sensory information, but only the important business makes it to our awareness. 

We look, and we see.  We listen, and we hear.  We touch, and we feel.  We taste, however, and we taste.  We smell, and, well, you can see where this is going.  We simply smell.

We touch and tactile feedback is rushed to the brain, much faster than we could imagine.  If we touch a hot stove, like I did yesterday, we pull our hand back without even thinking.  The message went from our hand, to the brain, and back to the hand that quick.  The sense of touch keeps us from hurting ourselves; if I hadn’t pulled my hand back, it would’ve burned.

There are a few isolated cases of lack of such tactile awareness I have heard of, but for the most part, we have an intact sense of touch.

As I am writing this, another friend just sent me a text to update me on her COVID recovery.  She is a 48-year-old nurse who is struggling with severe symptoms, but they are improving on Day 9.  “Things taste weird, and my feet are numb.”  

The mysteries of COVID continue. 

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I am spending the day writing today.  I am at home, and when I am at home all day, the temptations to snack on foods good and not-so-good are just a few steps away in my kitchen.  I, like most other people, place too much value on how food tastes as the main determinant of my food choices.  The taste buds typically rule when we choose our foods; even though those fleeting few moments of taste are gone, and the rest of the body has to deal with the aftermath for days, months, or even years.  “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” my mother used to say.   This challenge is one many people face, but simply realizing the fleeting nature of taste, pausing and thinking for just one moment about how quickly the pleasure will be gone is a good place to start of you want to make better food choices.

Other important ways to continue to take care of our senses include: 

  • Sight requires care as well.  Especially as we age, it is important to get regular checkups from an optometrist.  Changes in vision must be brought to the attention of your provider.
  • Eye strain from computer and other screen use is real, as is damage from accumulated overexposure to UV sunlight rays.   Minimize both as much as possible. 
  • Taking care of your ears by minimizing exposure to very loud sounds is important as well.  Noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by loud music or industrial sounds, as well as farm machinery.  Wearing ear protection is a must.
  • Our skin in the largest organ our body has; it is essentially a container for our entire bodies.  Tactile receptors are in the skin, providing the information regarding touch.  Take care of your skin by using sunscreen, keeping your skin from drying out by using lotion when necessary, and drinking plenty of water to keep your skin supple.  New or changing moles or other skin spots should be examined by your provider.
  • As we age, our taste buds decline slowly in function.  The sweet taste buds, however, are the most enduring, which explains why, as people age, they enjoy sweets more than other tastes.  Continue to eat a variety of foods to keep your taste buds stimulated and happy.
  • The sense of smell is a gift, even though not every smell is pleasant.  Many people who experience long-term loss of smell—anosmia—report long-term depression.  Most people who suffer from this experience it as a secondary effect, and it is difficult to preserve in certain conditions. 

**

Our five senses are incredible abilities.  Use them wisely, appreciate them, and do not take them for granted.  They are gifts not granted, as many people with COVID can attest to.  Taste, smell, touch sight and hearing are the phenomenal five.