the smell of social networking

i recently came across research that found young adults more willing to give up their sense of smell than their access to social networking sites. 
this struck me because smells are important to me. the scent of hot blacktop takes me to the 110 degree summers of central california and tire stores catapult me back 35 years to the studio, covered in rubber mats, where i took tumbling lessons. patchouli oil, basil leaves, coffee, and rain trigger similarly rich and vivid memories. even less obviously pleasant smells arouse positive memories. sweaty, “hot boy” smell always reminds me of my third grade classroom after recess and burning garlic bread is the smell of sunday dinner when i was 10. 
our sense of smell is integral. the smell of smoke tells us to pay attention. the smell of food affects its taste and people whose sense of smell is impaired have difficulty regulating their eating. a whiff of the fragrance worn by someone important has the power to transport. scents can affect mood and alleviate stress. animals use olfactory cues to hunt and to protect. 
somehow i can’t see facebook (or google plus or any other social network) filling in the gaps left by an “unsmelling” nose.
and this is just one of the five senses that aristotle originally suggested. neuroscientists and cognition researchers posit many more not formally classified senses that allow us to perceive our surroundings as humans.
for years i have been a loud proponent for becoming sensually alive. (notice how you felt when you read that sentence.) i believe strongly that tending to ones’ sensual self is healthy. the senses provide avenues into our relationships with ourselves, God, and others as well as the world around us in profound ways.
frequently, statements like the ones above are greeted with reactions ranging from blank, open-mouthed stares to extreme discomfort and/or incredulity.
a simple “feeding” of the senses is all i mean to suggest here. paying attention to what is sensed and providing opportunities for the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory senses to come alive. smelling things. tasting them. noticing what one sees. paying attention to the feeling of sensations such as water, air, and touch upon ones’ skin. hearing both that which is obvious and that which is not. seeing, deeply, what is in ones’ visual field. noticing our bodies and the sensual pleasures and pain they enjoy and endure. we are so out of touch, it seems, with our own sensual selves.
in previous times we, as a people, felt things, experientially, in ways we do not today. we felt exhausted from a day’s labor in the field. famished at meal time. without phones, televisions, or magazines, previous generations longed for the barn dance on saturday night or church on sunday to give them faces other than their own family’s to look at and voices to hear. we see the number of faces in a day that they saw in entire decades.
and yet...we are bored. we are lifeless. and, to “solve” these “maladies” we seek constant stimulation at the screens that fill our landscapes and yet, there is so little truly alive stimulation to be found there. when babies are uncomfortable, bored, and/or learning about their needs and wants we attend to their bodies. we feed them, we stroke their skin, we burp them, we sing to them and read to them and let them see our empathic faces. we don’t prop them up in front of a screen and hope that they forget that they are wet or hungry or scared.
so, today, i offer a different idea. might we, as a people, benefit from tending to the parts of our sensual beings that have not been exercised of late? might we be less bored, less driven to find entertainment outside of ourselves if we did this? while the carefully attended to smell of a rich cup of coffee may not feel as rewarding as noticing the number of friends in your circle at first, might it come to be at least stimulating? while the sight of a deeply blue sky dappled with wisps of white may not feel wonder-filled at all at first blush, might it come to bring a different sense of calm than a screen? might it actually connect us to our breathing, to our own thoughts, and usher us into our present moment in a profoundly different way? the feeling of squeaky blades of grass, rough carpet, or cold cement on the feet could come to symbolize grounding in a way that no texted tome ever could. and touch...real, skin to skin, air to skin, or fabric to skin touch might awaken us in ways that digital “in-touchness” never does.
as smell alerts us to danger, informs hunger, and induces emotional responses, so can our social networking leanings inform us. perhaps, however, they are informing us that there are parts of us that are under-developed. in response, how about tending to a sensual aspect of the self every time we feel drawn to check in with a screen. might this encourage us to care as much about our present, physical selves at least as much as our online ones? perhaps we’ll begin hoping for more for ourselves. perhaps we’ll begin giving ourselves more...genuinely, in embodied ways, like we used to...


  1. Excellent reminder that online interactions are a substitute, not a replacement for in-person interactions. I'd *never* trade one of my senses for FB/twitter/G+/etc. :) I still turn off the radio and open the windows when I drive up above Sonora. There's a smell of the mountains that kicks in at a certain point that is so intimately intertwined with memories of camping and vacations and skiing and and and and... that I can't replace and wouldn't want to. It's the same reason I still buy physical books, even though I own and love my Kindle. There is more to experience than through our eyes. Sound, taste, touch and smell are neither less nor more important. They are all part of our experiences.

  2. Oh man! You should have come down for my show! I read about 60 books on this topic (smell) and the loss of smell has been linked to suicidal depression (see Michael Hutchence's death from INXS)

    I'm doing a performance in New York at the beginning of October with perfume, and I'm also presenting perfumes in a room at the Ace Hotel with the Content show October 1st (sadly the two shows are the same day, so I'll be in New York and not here...)

    We'll have to get together soon to smell!

    (oh and the comment about books is even related to smell...part of the smell of a library is the saliva of thousands of people having licked their fingers, turned pages, and marked each book with their scent!)

  3. thank you, scott and julia, for interacting with me on this! this is ALWAYS my hope...to begin a conversation...rather than present a monologue.

    i encourage anyone interested in exploring what it's like to fully engage the world to check out julia's work. i have mentored julia for years and am so honored to do so. she is an example of a person who is living fully out loud, working diligently to follow her own path rather than simply set out on the one culture would dictate for her. you can learn more about her work and experiential life at: http://juliabarbee.com/home.html

  4. Thanks for writing this Doreen! Great challenge! I am going to try this: "how about tending to a sensual aspect of the self every time we feel drawn to check in with a screen"

  5. brilliant! I do not do a good job of articulating my feelings about this issue in a way that is not demeaning or judgmental in appearance, but I cannot say how pained I am everyday by screens replacing interaction and life in general. Sometimes I just want to take the phone/computer/ipad and literally chuck it out the window (I have been closer than you would think). Sometimes I want to sarcastically suggest the person who's face is lit up by a screen, to check in, or be present, or hang out with the people who are actually next to them. Usually I just get sad and my energy begins to deplete because I know I am being replaced by a device no bigger than a stack of cards, and the world is being ignored by the same... I wonder how we can articulate this fear and pain in structural ways?

  6. amen to living our best, fullest sensual selves!!! God's glory is a human being fully alive...

  7. this post is powerful. it reminds me of the longings i so often have for the experiences i've read of in 'little house on the prairie' books: barn raisings, square-dances, perusing a sears catalog once a year, potlucks, homemade bread...