Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Incense 2

A couple of days ago I noted that I burned a lot of incense while the power was out, that I find incense to be a comforting presence.

Why? That is, why is it a comforting presence?

I don't really know, but I'm sure there's a neural angle to it. Of course, there's a neural angle to anything we sense, feel, think, desire, or are in any way aware of. That's because that's what the nervous system does, mediates awareness and action.

That's not what I mean. What I suspect is that there's a neural angle that's somehow interesting or significant.

Why would I think that? Because smell is one of the most primitive and basic senses. It's a chemical sense, it detects chemicals by the shape of their molecules.

There's nothing more basic to life than the shape of molecules. That's how many biomolecules work, by their shape. That's one of the main research areas in molecular biology, understanding the shape of biomolecules: How does a long string of protein fold up into a complex 3D shape? That's how drugs work; the drug molecule is a biological "key" that opens a biological "lock"–the lock-and-key analogy is, I believe, a standard one. I certainly didn't invent it.

It's worth remembering that Watson and Crick got a Nobel Prize for doing a very "simple" thing: determining the shape of the DNA molecule. Simple my ass! Yes, the shape is a simple one, a double-helix. But figuring that out was not at all simple. Not at all.

But I digress.

Incencse. Chemical sense. Smell.

While smell is not unimportant to humans, not at all, it looms larger in the worlds of, say, ants and dogs than it does in our world. Ants make their way in the world by following chemical trails, whether they're chemicals just out there in the world or trails left by other ants. Smell is for ants what vision is for us, a major navigational sense.

That smell is a basic and primitive sense means that it is basic and primitive to the brain. The cerebral cortex is the most recently evolved part of the brain. The major and almost only difference between human brains and the brains of apes is in the size of the cortex, which is much much larger in humans. The rhinencephalon, the "smell brain," is the phylogenetically oldest part of cortex.

If, crudely put, the cortex is where thinking happens, then smell is the first thing that animals thought about, if animals could be said to think–but THAT question is a messy one, so let's just grant thought to animals. What do smells mean? They can mean food, they can mean danger, they can mean another animal to snuggle up to. They can mean many things. It all depends.

I'm guessing that incense somehow more or less means another animal to snuggle up to. But that's only a guess and a crude one at that. It's a guess designed to produce a predetermined answer. I find incense comforting. Snuggling is comforting. Therefore incense signals the presence of a snuggle-worthy animal.

A lot depends, of course, on the odor of the incense. I suppose that, if nothing else were available, I'd burn strawberry incense, but it's not my incense of choice. At the moment I'm burning a stick of Nag Champa, which was recommended by the owner of the shop where I bought it. I like it.

I also like Woods–"Includes natural oils and resins cherished from time immemorial for their medicinal and aromatic properties." Also recommended by that shop owner.

Time to lay in another supply.


  1. A quality not usually thought of with smell: its contribution to noting the rhythm and presence of things in their proportions around us. Especially when in a quiet environment.