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Friday, November 10, 2017

Feeling and Smell

As a physical therapist, I've long been intrigued by the senses.  Learning about the complexities of the neuromuscular system and its effect on our experience of the world is fascinating.

Most of us learned at some point in elementary school that there are five basic senses:


That pretty much covers everything.

In physical therapy we explore the complexities of feeling - not touch but feeling.  Do you feel sharp or dull pain? Is it cold or hot? Do you feel pressure? Can you tell what you're feeling in your pocket without looking at it? If I put your arm in a position while you have your eyes closed, can you put your other arm in the same position?  Can you pinpoint where you're feeling that sensation?

Taste and smell have been linked in conversations I've had - when you have a cold, your food doesn't taste quite as good.  If something has a really strong taste, you can make consuming it slightly more palatable by pinching your nose or avoiding inhaling while you chew.  Many older people lose their appetites and one reason is that eating is no longer a pleasurable experience because they have lost much of their ability to actually taste the food.

In English, we probably overuse the verb "feel".  We use it to describe emotions as well as what we actually feel with our "touch" sensors. "I feel like you are angry." "I feel like I told you this already." Do I really have a feeling, or have we slightly shifted the meaning of the word to indicate something more like thinking but less conscious, more automatic?

As I began learning Slovak, I encountered the word "cítiť"  the infinitive verb meaning "to smell, feel, taste, savor".  Those are a lot of senses crammed into one word!

When used to indicate smell it describes when you smell something - e.g. "I smell smoke."  When you want to say that something smells good - e.g. "The roses smell amazing" - you use the verb "voňať".  When you want to say that something smells terrible - e.g. "That dumpster stinks" - you use the verb "smrdieť". (Which, coincidentally, sounds like it smells bad!)

The curious thing about this verb "cítiť" in Slovak is that if you add the reflexive "sa", it means "I feel" in the sense of an emotion or experience.  "Cítim sa dobre." I feel good.

It's interesting to me that in English we merge the sense of touch with our emotional feelings, where as in Slovak they merge their sense of smell with their emotional feelings.

Not that it's a surprise, but I like the linguistic evidence that our senses and emotions are more complicated than a simple list that kindergarteners learn or even the complex nerve endings and receptors that neuroscientists and physiologists and anatomists study.

We are complex and our experiences of the world are intricate and unique.

Maybe linguistics have a role in the translation of Psalm 34:8, "Taste and see that the Lord is good."  Using the construct of all our physical senses combining to create both an emotional experience and an intellectual knowledge of God's goodness.

*Purely for the linguistically interested:
The phrase "cítim sa pod psa"  literally means "I feel under the dog", but in idiomatic form means "I feel under the weather" or "I feel as sick as a dog".

for more photos from underneath dogs, visit