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“I don’t smell a soul anywhere near you”

2 August 2012

First: a brief history

I started this blog back in March 2010 with the post We’re all doomed, and have since written on average one or two posts a month. However, as can be clearly seen in the visitor statistics graph below, I didn’t really have much of an audience for the first 18 months or so. In fact, by late summer last year I was considering packing the whole thing in due to lack of interest – after all, what’s the point of writing if no one’s reading*?

But then something happened. I was reading a post on the Bloggess awesome blog where she quoted someone called Lisa Galaviz. It was a hilarious collection of one-liners and quirky observations that had me completely hooked. In my innocence, I tweeted some of the quotes (I think one of them was “Don’t ever google how they extract squid ink for black pasta when having black pasta. I thought perhaps they milk them or something. This is not the case.”) and lo and behold: Lisa responded! Not only that, she tracked down my dusty old blog and went through every post, leaving clever and funny comments everywhere. In addition, she tweeted about it to all her followers.

This had some immediate consequences: firstly, having read all my posts, Lisa kept bugging me to write some more, which sort of made it impossible for me to kill off my blog. Secondly, the visitor stats went through the roof! Within weeks my blog was full of comments by lots of cool, funny and intelligent people. And finally, it introduced me to a wealth of clever bloggers and made me realise there was a whole community out there.

But most of all, Lisa’s interest in my writing made me believe there actually was an audience for my dry, quasi-scientific posts on humanity and the universe. So for this reason (and for possibly having phoned her in my dream a little while ago and dedicating this post to her (although I don’t really remember that last part..)), I dedicate this post to you, Lisa. After all, it wouldn’t have been written if it wasn’t for you.

von Economo

Now for the actual post. I read the other day about a weird type of neurons that was discovered in the 1920s by the Romanian scientist Constantin von Economo. They were weird because they were big – very big. They were also not of the usual branching pyramidal shape but rather long and spindly. In fact, they were so different from regular brain cells that he thought they might be diseased.

But without any modern tools for studying the activity of the brain, not much more could be done about it and the discovery was soon forgotten. It took more than 80 years for them to be rediscovered, and another decade to figure out what their purpose might be.

Sooo failing the mirror test! (Stupid bird.)

von Economo neurons (VENs for short) are very rare, making up less than 1% of the neurons in areas in our brains used for social awareness and monitoring. They seem to light up when a person is exposed to social cues, like a frowning face or a baby crying. They also activate whenever we see (and recognise) ourselves in a mirror, suggesting that they are important for our awareness of self, the basis of consciousness. In addition, they are central to our ‘salience’ network, which subconsciously keep track on what’s happening and direct our attention to where it’s most needed.

So what are those VENs actually doing? Well, since they are big cells they are probably fast signal transmitters – perhaps a super-highway of a sort for information that is essential to make important social decisions on the fly. You know that gut-feeling you sometimes get? Those quick almost subconscious decisions would most certainly help us navigate the political landscape of our highly social world.

All combined, the VEN rich centres in the brain keeps a continuously updated sence of how we feel right now. In other words, it makes us conscious.

The smelly truth

“I think, therefore I am” – I believe, my good Descartes, that it should have been “I smell, therefore I am”. Sorry.

But that’s not the end of the story. The two areas in the brain that contain VENs originally evolved to combine and monitor smell and taste. This would have given us the ability to instantly determine if something was edible or not. And from there, we evolved a sense of empathy which would have been vital in a small group of hunter-gatherers, where food-sharing could be the difference between life or death.

Morality and our sense of smell and taste is therefore related, something that can be shown by our reaction to foul-tasting food – it is almost identical to our reaction to something morally disgusting. It has also been shown that we tend to be harsher in our judgements when subjected to a foul smell; if you ever happen to end up in front of a judge and jury accused of an immoral crime, make sure to wear a pleasant perfume – preferably something food-related, like cinnamon or cardamom – in order to increase your chances of getting a less severe sentence**.

The evolution of the VENs in our brain seem to be linked to the evolution of our consciousness. First it was a smell and taste supervision system, constantly on alert to guard us from food poisoning. Then it evolved into a social monitoring system, keeping track of social cues and guiding our attention to focus on the most pressing events. It later evolved into a center for morality and empathy and by constantly and continuously updating the picture of ‘how I feel now’ it – accidentally – gave rise to a continuous sense of self, a consciousness. ‘It’ became ‘I’.

To summarise: our consciousness has come about as a side-effect of us being able to determine if food’s gone bad. So much for the divine spark. We’re really just over-glorified garbage disposers.


* This is a somewhat controversial subject. Is the only point of writing to have your text read by someone else? Or is it more of a solitary exercise, something we indulge in for our own amusement and satisfaction? I don’t know. I do know, however, that for me personally it is rather important to get some kind of feedback from other people.

** Do not try this at home. Or rather: do not try this at court. By that I mean don’t commit crimes thinking you can get away with them just by smelling nice. This is real life, not Perfume, and you’re not Grenouille.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 August 2012 16:14

    Ohohoh! Perfume is one of my very favourite novels!


    • 2 August 2012 16:27

      It’s a great book! And who would have thought it was partly based on scientific facts?


      • 2 August 2012 16:32

        Yes, that is very cool. I haven’t seen the movie because I am mostly afraid that it will suck. 😦


        • 2 August 2012 16:35

          It wasn’t bad. Not very true to the book, perhaps – more like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: the mood is there and most of the plot.


          • 2 August 2012 16:39

            Ohhhhh, um – don’t compare anything to PJ’s LotR if you’re trying to get me to see it. >.<


          • 2 August 2012 16:49

            Then I shan’t. I did enjoy the film Perfume for the actor performances though. Dustin Hoffman is great as always, as is Alan Rickman.


  2. 2 August 2012 16:50

    Yes, they were the primary reasons I was interested. I did read that they completely changed the ending, which made me a little sad.

    Next year (which is the year of no reading challenges, where I get to read whatever the eff I want), I plan on re-reading it for the however manyth time. Maybe I’ll gather up the courage to watch it then.


  3. 2 August 2012 17:02

    This is fantastic! All I need for my life of crime is some perfume that smells like freshly-baked cookies. Thanks!


  4. 2 August 2012 17:05

    Thanks for the wonderful dedication. I thought maybe you would put my name up somewhere like, “This one’s for you.” I loved hearing the story about your blog. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes?


  5. 2 August 2012 17:07

    Reblogged this on The Best Self-Help T-Shirt Catalog Ever! and commented:
    Look, Everybody… A real live blog post at… dedicated to ME!


  6. 2 August 2012 19:18

    Those are some impressive stats. If I had that many people reading my attempts at writing, I don’t know if I could go on. Too much pressure to perform, so to speak.
    It is interesting to look back and try to figure out how we got to where we are with social media. A series of happy accidents might be the explanation.


    • 2 August 2012 21:18

      They might look more impressive than they are. A typical post don’t get much more than 50-60 views or so. Still, it’s a big improvement from ‘pre-Lisa’.

      And I agree with the happy accident thing. Just the same with twitter really. It was interesting and all to start with, but it didn’t become an obsession until I got to know all you cool people!


  7. 3 August 2012 00:37

    What wonderful thing to do – dedicating this post to Lisa, as I just mentioned over on her blog – it’s rare to know how we have impacted others lives. And, thanks so much for the informative post. From this I have surmised that I should start wearing perfume STAT. You know…..just in case. 😉


    • 3 August 2012 05:25

      Well, I did promise. Apparently.

      But you’re right: it is difficult to know how we impact other peoples’ lives. Although sometimes that might be a good thing, not knowing, or we would perhaps become too aware of the consequences of our actions. That could lock us up.


  8. 3 August 2012 01:10

    I have many things to say. MANY THINGS.

    First, your title is totally a “Buffy” quote! About my Spike! Aw! YAY!

    Second, Lisa is the best. If it wasn’t for Lisa, I wouldn’t know you, or Ken. Or other Lisa. And my life would be so much emptier.

    Third, almost all of my favorite perfume smells like food. Without even knowing that I was working with some sort of scientific principle. I WIN SCIENCING. (Not gross food. It doesn’t smell like Doritos or sausage or something. Dessert items, or baking spices, or candy, mostly.)

    Fourth, I’m so glad you didn’t stop blogging. I would have been heartbroken. I see a new post from you, and I just light up. Your blog is one of my favorites to read, ever.


    • 3 August 2012 05:36

      It totally is! By one of my favourite actors: Joel Grey.

      I concur. Lisa introduced me to all you cool people. She’s done good.

      There you go! Just don’t start a life of crime now!

      Aw thank you! That means a lot, it really does! As mentioned in the post, I didn’t expect my kind of posts ever to get a big audience, so it’s very nice to know that they are appreciated!


  9. 3 August 2012 18:08

    * i like having people read my posts. i especially like comments. before internet i was a diarist and letter writer, so i am a good fit for blogging. i still have some diaries from art school days because they included drawings. there was a period when i was writing a LOT in diaries – a variation on the ‘morning pages’ which i called the ‘moaning pages’. they filled several volumes, and i threw them in the bin just before i moved house last year.

    i’m not sure if i would still be writing if i didn’t have readers, but it’s not one way traffic. my blog peeps are my correspondents now, and i read as much as or more than i write.


    • 3 August 2012 19:40

      This is true: it’s like old-fashioned pen pals; we now communicate through blog posts and comments, but the principle is the same.


  10. 6 August 2012 18:45

    I’m in writing for the money. (I’m also deeply delusional, or so the voices in my head tell me.) No, I write to create great works of art and thought. (Refer to the parenthetical comment.) Um, to quote Brendan Behan, I’m a drinker with a writing problem.

    But we apparently need a new saying. Instead of a gut reaction, let’s call it a schnoz reaction. Thus, Jimmy Durante will be the symbol for all instinctual behavior.


  11. 8 August 2012 06:19

    Interesting theory and I have a little test I can try tomorrow. I have a job interview. I have many scented oils due to being a creatrix of bath fizzies and the like. Perhaps for tomorrow’s interview, I will endeavor to smell of cinnamon buns. If they offer me the job on the spot, I’ll let you know.



  1. Premonitions «
  2. Future minds – part 1: the beginning |

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