June 23, 2008

What the Nose Knows

This book by Avery Gilbert, who is a smell scientist/psychologist, describes aspects of the sense of smell through lots of entertaining and instructive anecdotes. They range a wide spectrum across nature and chemistry from the beautiful to the terrible. He depicts everything from perfumers' work practices, to how food is tasted through the way it smells from inside our mouths, to the the way smells signal the stages of decay.

Even though it's not much spoken about or focused on, we all know the sense of smell is in constant use both consciously and unconsciously in humans and all other living beings. It's like a steering mechanism used by us all. I was surprised to find out that the same scent molecules are creating all the different fragrances across nature, in butterfly wings and greenery and flowers and food stuffs. Certain ones are much more dominant but the same ones recur everywhere. It's their combinations and atmospheric concentration that change the characteristic scent of each thing.

I was interested to find out that we each carry a very particular scent within the palms of our hands which is as individual as a fingerprint. Our pets know that our own smell is a unique identifying characteristic that marks everything we come into contact with.

An experiment revealed that people's capacity of appreciation for fragrance is basically equal, and is mostly a matter of development. Actually a matter of consciously noticing and remembering what you are smelling, deliberately cultivating this particular aspect of experience. We all have essentially the same equipment, a nose connected to a brain. A perfumer's nose is educated rather than simply possessing some innate ability that is greater than average. Their creative talent lies in how they put fragrance elements together, similar to how a poet or writer combines ideas and associations.

It was also interesting to find out that experiments have been conducted that show that people who have a highly adverse reaction to perfume do not actually have a more sensitive sense of smell or greater reactivity to the chemicals in them, except that they had a measurably stronger reaction in a certain area of the brain. Hopefully people will not see this as undermining the reality of their suffering, but instead that they can change their minds, so to speak (and perhaps not feel they must pass ordinances against the use of perfume too?)

Also mentioned are the perfumista sites (this one among them, which was nice). The author believes that going forward it would be useful to have more written about fragrances that explain what they are really like to wear, as opposed to lots more of the frothy evocative marketing language created to sell it. At the same time he confirms that reading about scent experiences can evoke a physical reaction and create mental and emotional associations that will invest that particular fragrance with more pleasurable dimension.

The book is $23.95 in hardcover, available online at Amazon and soon in all the bookstores.


chayaruchama said...

Thanks, honey !
I've reserved it at Border's-
Will pick it up today...

Fino Sosa said...

Great book review on the olfactory power. I'll look for it in Amazon.