ACTOR Awareness & Connection Through Olfactory Reception


To develop and enhance sensitivity to the aromatic intimations of nature


Humans are capable of identifying tens of thousands of chemical scents, but describing them is a difficult task. There is nothing more primal a sensation than olfaction. Because of the proximity of olfactory receptor cells and its association to the limbic system, which is one of the oldest parts of the brain, olfaction seems to have the ability to evoke the emotional aspects of our experiences. Although the process of how odors are exactly perceived, stored in memory and recalled years later is not completely understood, the memory of smells undoubtedly is still considered crucial to survival. The memory of odors in animal studies has been linked to many survival functions such as avoiding danger, seeking food, fighting, and mating. Awareness & Connection Through Olfactory Reception (ACTOR) aims to use an environment’s smells to create a meaningful experience for the participants.

Location and Time

TIME REQUIRED: ACTOR could be completed successfully in 60 minutes. It could also be extended to allow time to participate in small group reflection. 


Olfaction is a very important sense that it has similarities in terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates. There are approximately 25 million olfactory receptor cells that collect smell information of an environment. Just like other senses or organs, olfactory fatigue can occur when a series of inputs of similar strength stimulate the receptors. When this occurs, the olfactory nerves become accustomed to the stimuli or become desensitized.


Choose a site (e.g. natural reserve, park, football field, etc.) big enough to accommodate all participants to work independently.

Participants will select four areas. At each area, they will record the different smells they encounter for 10 minutes.

Sensitivity to odors varies among people. To sensitize and minimize if not prevent fatigue of olfactory receptors, it may be necessary for participants to travel from one area to another. However, participants need to move cautiously, so as not to disrupt the environment.

In describing a particular smell, ask participants to compare it to a more common one. Discourage participants from describing the smell in one word. Instruct them to describe the smell using a series of adjectives or descriptive phrases. Participant should also focus on the emotional characteristics of odors (e.g. warm, thick, dry, acrid, etc.)

Because olfaction is linked to gustation, participants may associate aromas to familiar food tastes (e.g. sour, sweet, spicy, caramel, mint, etc.). For example:

“The area where I am standing exudes a sweet, spicy smell. It reminds me of a freshly baked roll, carelessly covered in caramelized cinnamon.”

Ask participants to be mindful of odors that bring memories to mind.

After 40 minutes, allow participants additional time to reflect or bring their observations to closure. If additional time is given, the facilitator should announce how much additional time will be allotted.

After completing their observation and documentation, the facilitator should gather all participants to an area within the environment and encourage them to share their aromatic observations to a classmate or the group. Each participant should be given the opportunity to share his or her experience. Participants are also encouraged to communicate any emotions and/or impressions they feel after their observations (e.g. fearful, reminiscent, peaceful).

Participants should indicate any memories that different aromas bring to mind. Ask them to compare and see whether similar smells evoke similar memories. For those participants who collected smells from the same sites, encourage participants to share smells to see what odors have gone unnoticed by other participants but have been detected easily by others.

This activity should be repeated several times in the same or different environments to enhance and instill olfactory sensitivity and recognition.


Language Arts/Literature:  For any piece of literature, instruct the participants to be sensitive to poetic devices that use “smell” words to appeal to them (e.g. acrid, sweet, vinegary, pungent). Is the author explicitly describing a smell? Can smells be evoked from implicit descriptions in the text? What would it smell like to be a character or observer in the text?  Why are “smell” words so closely related to “taste” words (e.g. sweet, peppery, vinegary, strawberry-scented)?Visual/Performing Arts:  Ask participants listen to music or look at art and determine if scents are implied by what they hear or see. What would it smell like to be it that painting (e.g. a still life with fruit, a pastoral landscape)?  Does something in music remind you of any smells?  Do the lyrics make reference to smells?  What kinds of smells would seem pleasant to that musician? Are there any smells you feel would complement or contrast with that piece?Social Science:  While studying different historical periods, let participants imagine the smells that one would or would not have detected during a time period (e.g. the smell of sulfur during the Medieval period, Renaissance, the smell of gun powder during World War II, the smell of grinding metal during the Industrial Revolution).Natural Science:  Supplement ACTOR with lessons on diffusion, kinetic energy (energy of motion), and Brownian motion (which describes the vibration of atoms of matter that is in a solid state).

Teacher Materials

  • pen or pencil
  • several sheets of paper (spiral notebook is recommended)