Smell is a powerful thing. It bypasses the reasoning parts of our brains and goes straight on to the emotional center. Diane Ackerman, author of The Natural History of the Senses (a recommended read), calls smell a “tripwire” that causes “memories [to] explode all at once..[in] a complex vision [that] leaps out of the undergrowth”.
It is, in fact, such an powerful stimulant that many Alzheimer’s support groups are now using it as a means to help suffers recall otherwise blocked emotions and memories. [Start here if you want more info on this subject: HelpforAlzheimersFamilies.com]
Advertisers are also wielding the olfactory whip and not always to our advantage. Branding expert, Mark Lindstrom has written a whole book on how sense manipulation can be used to push products. I had no idea that Singapore Airlines had actually patented the smell of their cabins. Who knew that you could even do that? Not me!
Neither did I suspect the Department of Defense to be sinking dollar after dollar into projects that focus on turning smell into a weapon, or as they more innocuously call it as “a tool for crowd dispersal”.
Ok. Creepy, but true. Here’s the American Scientist article. And there are more out there. Go look! But beware that even reading about all that burnt hair and vomit is enough to induce nausea or worse.
At least, aromatherapists know that smell has a good side. I won’t subject you to all of the research going on in this field, but just know that smell can open many doorways–some that lead to copious health benefits and some that go down the path to seduction. Uh huh! Read that right.
Linger on that thought for a moment, and then go pick up a copy of Diane Ackerman’s The Natural History of Love. Another fascinating read on the role of smell in attraction. And it’s not just all about pheromones. Sections on aphrodisiacs, etc.
Smell can even invoke whole cities in one’s mind. One whiff of boiled crawfish sends me home. Not that I’ve left New Orleans for long. Who needs to? Some tours groups are even organizing around this little fad called smellwalking. I hear that it’s fun.
While it hasn’t yet made it to my city, “nosy” researchers like Kate McLean have already mapped out such places as Glasgow and Paris. To the left is a map of Edinburgh (known affectionately as Auld Reekie) that was done in 2011. More on McLean’s work in the Daily Mail. And do check out her blog.
I found Dali’s old buddy, Antoni Pitxot featured there. Apparently, the painting below was a rendering of the smell of a fishing village in Spain.
But do understand that it’s not just visual artists who can stand to bring smell into their work. Unfortunately, it’s one of the more neglected senses in literature, and this is truly a shame.
When done well, you get novels like
The Perfume Collector or the Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. I will never forget how Brooks’ opening chapter invokes the aroma of apples and woodpiles and hay to bring one into the main character’s world. Transportive. Literally.
And in the poetry space, I find that Aimee Nez has a real gift for incorporating scents. She will often speak of the pull of smell in interviews. I will let you discover these tidbits and the rest of her work for your own, but what I will introduce you to is an exercise that she often employs with herself and her students.
So, adapted from Aimee, your challenge this week: to begin a journal of scents. That’s right! For (at least) the next week, I want you to be led by your nose.
Then once you have collected a copious amount of those little emotion-invoking spigots, I want you to weave them into some linked poems or a good piece of prose. And as always, feel free to share them here on the blog or post other examples.