I have been putting a lot of thinking into the sense of smell of late. I am fascinated by the immense power it has on one’s cognition and perception of stimuli as well as its deep influence on our memory. There is something so potent about our olfactory nerves and how our brain processes the chemical messages that enter our nose every day. Having just taken PSYC 101, I was briefly introduced to the thalamus, what my professor called “the Grand Central Station” of the brain. Everything that your brain processes must go directly through the thalamus – that’s just how it works. However, strangely enough, olfactory inputs travel through other brain regions (including the centers for memory and emotion) before reaching the thalamus. The implications of such a distinct difference in processing is still unclear, but notably interesting.
I recently came home for a two-week Spring Break amidst my first spring semester in college. Since my break doesn’t quite line up with those of my old high school pals, I have been spending a bit of time by myself. Additionally, there’s nothing better than to take a shower in your own home with the ability to lather yourself up in creams and oils that smell like your mom. Along with the fact I can now light candles and incense in my room without consequence, I have thought a lot about smell.
I’m wearing my mom’s perfume right now and I feel so close to her. It’s as if I can feel her warmth and scent around me all day. Yesterday, I put on some hand cream I’d bought at Bath and Body Works with my boyfriend. We bought a candle that day which smelt like “Endless Weekend” as it was called, and now every time I wear the cream all I can think about is that day. That’s the power of smell. How incredible that one can be reminded of events and memories through the repetition of an old chemical stimuli. How sophisticated must our brains be to connect scent with memory?
I love coming home because the odors around me envelope me in comfort and familiarity. College has a bit of a funk to it, to put it as politely as I can. I mean, it smells like the mountains and dirty ground; an overwhelmingly earthy odor in comparison to the ocean breezy scent of back home. The smells of college are not bad by any means. They are simply unfamiliar and different despite having lived there for half a year by now.
Home, and the people who occupy this space, smell of lavender and herbs. They smell like vinegar and pepper. They smell like mud and sea salt. They smell like wet dog fur and lemon flavored water. They smell of coconut oil and garlic. They smell like dusty car and green apple shampoo. Every one of these aromas makes up an equation called home. Without one, the balance falls flat and the sensation is uncomfortable.
I did a little research on the study of our olfactory “nervous system” and found that context and expectations play large roles in our processing of scent. Surprisingly for one of the five senses, we as a species, have very few words to express smell. In fact, we often have to call other aromas to mind in order to make comparisons. How intriguing! Therefore, our previous experiences with certain smells influence our future ones with new smells. Someone who grew up in the city may be perturbed by the scent of manure, but someone who grew up on a farm might call in nostalgia.
In addition, what we call a smell affects are perception of it. Telling someone that a certain aged Parmesan cheese hidden in a container is vomit might make them recoil at the smell of it. However, tell them its great cheese, and their perception of it would be entirely different. One might also speculate that a once positive smell can become sour after a memory with it has been tainted. Or perhaps a great memory forever masks a scent in nostalgia that makes you stop in your tracks every time you smell it. Is that a flaw of our species? Is there a positive reason to being so encapsulated in our sense of smell? I don’t know, and frankly neither do many scientists as it is one of the most elusive of our senses.
I guess, in the time I have spent researching and thinking about our sense of smell, I have become very cognizant of its power. More than that however, is the sensation of our senses in combination with each other. Coming into my room, having just taken a warm shower, only to be further warmed by a warm candle fire and its corresponding scent, I can feel the magic of all my senses working together. I feel whole and powerful. I feel warm and clean. I feel human.