The smell to move us….

23rd June 2022

Water on a hot dusty plain….is a scent Nadhim Zahawi (one of the UK’s top politicians who emigrated from Iraq as a child) says is truly evocative for him. I can empathise. The thought of it nudges deeply sunken memories from my childhood in India, when I used to swim in monsoon rain gushing through dryly smudged village streets. During lockdown, smell was one of my crutches; offering liberation from a dulled despondency. Having been gifted with samples of fragrances ‘the nose’ of a well known brand was refining, each day I would spritz and be transported. It was grounding but at the same time redolent; lifting me up. Liquid memory keeping me sane and happy in my confinement. 

There is a reason smell is agitating to us. It directly triggers our emotions and recollections. Aromas are drawn through our nose stimulating receptors to send messages to the limbic areas of the brain (where feelings and memories reside). Combined with the olfactory knowledge we store, the brain attempts to decode what we are subsuming. This is unlike other senses where information is passed through to our consciousness and deciphered without immediately making us reminisce. More extraordinary if you consider the implications of this undertaking is how smell is somehow lodged into our long term memory. Studies have determined we can detect over 1 trillion odours but language has not evolved to describe each one so we are aware but have limited means to express the impressions introduced. 

Research indicates that we relied on the sensations smell provokes much more in the past than we do today, although I am not sure how this has been verified. We believe smell is the only fully developed sense a foetus has in the womb and It is the sense that is the most developed in a child of 10 years from when vision takes more prominence. Because of the way odours prompt sentiment, childhood appears to be the period in which we determine the smells we will like and dislike for life (which is hilarious as I don’t understand how that explains the obsession of my cost centres with bottom burps…). A year after perceiving a smell, our memory of it has c65% precision with visual accuracy down to c50%. 

Whilst we eat, a very high percentage of our reaction to food is precipitated by smell rather than our other senses. But intriguingly odours are insightful in other ways. They help us understand a person’s health by detecting volatile compounds (dogs even insects are being trained to detect types of cancer). A suggestion is we can identify compatibility genes in another through their essence. Research has shown we appraise potential partners through pheromones and from the evolution of sniffing emerged kissing! The fresh smell of a newborn delivers the same emotional impact that a baby’s round face, eyes and gurgle elicit (www.discovermagazine.com). The desire to protect and nurture. Curiously although our sensitivity to smell varies by person, we all find particular whiffs such as smoke, sewage and rotten food disgusting, largely because the stench somehow warns of danger. So in that context our nose helps us survive. 

Have you noticed how much the smells around us have changed even in our short spans? Many smells have been lost across time through the evolution of how we live our lives so there are efforts to preserve our smell history. www.odeuropa.eu is aiming to conserve and recover this heritage by investigating how smell is expressed in olfactory information held in historical text and images. Scientists have developed a variety of techniques to do so. For example a researcher at UCL has extracted the smell of old leather gloves, aged books and mould. www.sensorymaps.com charts smells by noting what we would find in particular locations. It’s a beautiful little website to browse dissecting amongst others the smell of Paris and a hospital corridor. Separately an exhibition on rare manuscripts has somehow recreated the aroma of a 15th century Ethiopian gospel and the 1217 Magna Carta……..

You might question the necessity of documenting the smells around us? Many of the molecules we are exposed to today, have been in existence since the earth was formed so they are not disappearing anytime soon. But I buy into the idea to move forward we must know where we have come from. Scent is inextricably part of our history having and has the power to move us in unexpected ways. Smell offers an additional perspective and insight to what was and what will be. 

Many years ago, Les Senteurs wrote a list of aromas to smell before you die…here are some of those named with their comments. What would you have on your list?

A new bar of soap – minimalistic elegance and grace with a pure simplicity, there’s no surprise this is regarded as an essential foundation for cleanliness and basic luxury.

The hills of home – that indefinable smell of your native air.

Fried onions – there’s something special about the smell of onions being fried, is it the association with the fact that a great meal usually follows the frying or that they simply just smell great when pan-fried in butter? Either way, it’s definitely a scent to enjoy, although perhaps not to wear.

Orange peel & marmalade – a timeless combination, bitter and sweet orange citrus notes intertwined.

Clean/Fresh sheets – laid up in lavender or simply air dried.

Fresh cut spring grass – vividly reminiscent of summer weekend afternoons relaxing and taking in the sun with the scent of cut grass carried on the breeze.

The sea – a fresh salty aroma carried on the sea air with that heavier siren song of the boundless water promising adventure and exploration. Whether the sea reminds you of a holiday or home, there is no doubt its air of depthless mystery is alluring to all.

Pigs – quite probably the last thing that would come to mind when pressed to name desirable scents however it certainly is memorable and a very much distinguishable scent of nature in the countryside.

Icy iron – an iron railing with a hard January frost on it.

A convent chapel – inner cleanliness.

Snuffed candles – in the second they are extinguished; hot wax & burned wick.

New books: hardback & paperback edition smell quite different yet each, when opened, have that unmistakable smell of expectant wonder and adventure.

Bonfires – whether the smell of wood-smoke reminds you of traditional paella or summer nights under the stars, everyone always has associated memories.

The inside of handbags – musky, rich, an embracing scent.

Hot leather seats – stuffy, overpowering, the air becomes thick and heavy, this is definitely not a scent appreciated by all yet definitely one that isn’t forgotten.