Olfaction.

Walking down Pitt St, there was a woman just ahead in a pale gold cami and some stylishly faded dark gray jeans. She would have remained an unmemorable part of the flows of foot traffic had she not blown a puff of sweet cigarette smoke directly into my downstream nostrils. Instantaneously, and for a few metres, I was transported to the streets of Manhattan, walking past a mid-town juicery packed with lunchtime crowds, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the summer tourist season. I could see Central Park just ahead, except that I couldn't because I was actually hot-footing it towards Circular Quay and could just imagine the Bridge up ahead if squinting enough.

I had been talking to a friend earlier that same day about the power of smell. About how scent can give identity, emotion, belonging. The stinkiest member of our family took dog-smell to the next level. But when she had a bath, I had moments feeling like she had disappeared even when her curled up shape snuggled inside my much bigger spoon. One former boyfriend had a specific perfume that began to smell like home, and a year after we broke up I found myself extremely irritated at the gym for no particularly good reason, only to realise that a fellow fitness fanatic wore the same scent. No part of me could stand to be near the smell of heartbreak.

I love the smell of betadine. The smell of the careful preparation and mental planning for a case. The smell of it warmed up against our bodies as we've operated, and the knowledge of a job well done. The smell of learning and collegiality.

Curious, I asked my housemate, "Can you remember smells?" Because, on reflection, I can name smells, and when asked to think of a smell I will breath in deeply, but all I find myself remembering is the characteristics. It was "lemon" or "fresh" or "clean." But what really does the dish-detergent smell like? My memory cannot reveal the elusive.

The two of us walked through a nearby park the other week. I can remember in fine detail what I was wearing, the colour and composition of the foot path, the trees and their narrow leaves, the women in lycra who crossed our path, and the "partially cloudy" forecast of less than 10% cloud cover. I can remember it was very hot, but cannot actually imagine the feeling of the heat, and I can remember the content of our conversations but not the sound of her voice. And, try as I might, I have not even the slightest idea of what the walk smelled like. Nature? Trees? Dusty footpaths?

And so I turned to the literature. Can we remember smell? Certainly, we store memories of scents. An olfactory stimulant will lead often to vivid memories, particularly when the memory in which that smell was present is of strong emotional stimulus. Smells of home, smells of adventure, smells of pain will strike us the most with walks down memory lane. And these memories are often more powerful, more all-encompassing, than the average recollection. Some of the literature suggests women are more prone to such memories than men, though theories for why were not unveiled.

The olfactory bulb, that lovely Cranial Nerve I, is really a direct continuation of your brain. It is present early and important in formation of early bonds. It also bypasses the thalamus, the part of the brain I call our internal Post Office, because pretty much all messages go through it and then sent on to the correct destination. This part of our brain instead connects directly with the limbic system - the ancient part of our brain responsible for homeostasis, memory-formation and fear (and other) emotional responses. No wonder the whiff of the right brand of laundry powder has you nostalgic about home.

Continuing on my search, it seems plenty of other folks have asked of the internet the question that plagues me. Why can I evoke memories with active smell, but cannot remember a smell? And, it seems, this is not an uncommon phenomenon (phew). In part, suggests a perfumer, this is cultural. We are not sat down in school and asked to smell different smells and to remember them in an olfactorily (I made that word up) useful way. We learn smells throughout life, find names for them (orange, Chanel No 5, farm yard) and then retrieve those words when faced with the smell again. And so we iterate on smells with verbal references and have only verbal references to fall back on when asked what we experienced. Try as I might, closing my eyes, sniffing deeply, I cannot imagine the smell of lemon. I know it is sharp and acidic and sweet and fresh, but is this not also a description one could apply to a grapefruit?

Given the strength of odour-evoked memory when they are experienced - the palpable, whole-body transportation - is there value is using scent as a learning tool. Could you connect the smell of betadine, the wonderful calming pre-operative experience, with a study environment and also assist with evoking the memories of those hard-studied pages? Could you bring the smell of fresh laundry to a kindergarten classroom to ensure the new students felt safe away from home? Perhaps there are ways to enhance our lived experiences with simple olfactory cues. And perhaps then smells will be more helpful than remembering walks down familiar old streets.

Bonsai


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P.S. if anyone is an olfaction specialist, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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