The other day, a Facebook meme set me thinking. It was the question, “What is your favorite fragrance?” To be honest, I don’t know. I like a lot of fragrances really well. But too much or too long might not be pleasant anymore. Any too much or too long of anything is not my thing. It was something else that struck me way more.
Back in the day, at university, a canon of literature was recommended to anybody who studied literary science, which was one of my two subjects (the other being linguistics). Among these books was Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”) – an epic novel that I found quite interesting at the time but wouldn’t necessarily revisit. There are so many more books I haven’t read yet. Well, the story circles pretty much around a scent – that of Madeleines, a French cookie – and the memories it triggers. This phenomenon has actually become known as the Proust effect. And since then, a myriad of scientific books has been published about what is also known as “involuntary memory”.
Apparently, there are three kinds of triggers that set memory to work: actual occurrence of a smell, voluntary or involuntary recall of smell, or a psychiatric syndrome. The latter means that even PTSD can be triggered if the wrong kind of smell is either actually reaching the nose of somebody who suffers from it or if it gets involuntarily recalled. But this ought to be a column of happy thoughts and explorations.
Apparently, the olfactory bulb sits in the forebrain and sends its information to another part of the brain that is important for emotions, memory, and learning. So, now we know (at least superficially) how the sense for scents plays such a huge role in our entire being.
A child can recognize their mother infallibly by her scent. Maybe that is the sense behind the sense for scents. That of making the human being able to find nourishment and protection. Later on, a stink can warn of danger. It can signify pleasure. It becomes an enhancement of our gut instincts.
I dare claim that we can even control our sense of smelling to the point off setting parameters. As we inhale something that we like, we send a plethora of more scent information to our brain cells responsible for memory and emotion than if we hold our noses. Which means that unpleasant stinks might be remembered less if we are able NOT to fully breathe them in. For example, in holding our noses.
This would explain why I personally recognize the scent of stink bombs, skunks, or butyric acid but can’t voluntarily recall the scent. While writing this, I have tried it ever so often – fail. I have no trouble recalling pleasant “stinks”, though – that of a harbor at low tide or that of Esrom cheese, for example. The secret is most probably the emotional memory connected to these odors. Obviously, school being canceled for the rest of the day because somebody set off some stinky device in the hall room never registered as profoundly with me as the pleasant memory of a day by the seaside or a slice of a delicious food item.
It seems that in blocking any unpleasant smells, I own a treasure trove of ones that trigger happy memories and, thus, send me to a happy place even if they are only voluntarily recalled, not actually around me. At any given time. The sweet scent of a rose, the tart one of crisp apples, the spicy one of spruce branches, that of a chocolate cake freshly from the oven, a roast chicken, a blown-out candle … What’s YOUR favorite fragrance?