Tuesday, April 27, 2010


When I first started falling down the rabbit hole of perfume, there were loud voices on the way down, insisting that if I was doing this right, my nose would respond to a given perfume like any other [trained] nose.

Even then, when the "lock and key" system of receiving smell was at the top of the theoretical heap (a few changes in the last two-three years, with more to come), I had some issues with that assertion.  So I continued falling, all the while grappling with on the one hand the notion that proper training would teach me how to "know" smells, and on the other hand, knowing full well that context affected my experience of smell.

This is a complicated ball of wax, with threads of language and meaning and cultural parsing and stubborn emotion and primacy effect and such coming in and out, along with the need to step beyond the science of the nose.  WHAT?!?  But, if I am being true and scientific and evaluative and objective, I will stay within the bounds of the observable.  My outcomes will be duplicated by other objective observers across the globe.  Right?


EXHIBIT A:  Fun with staying with "the observable"

A while back, in the nascent era of filmmaking, an enterprising director by the name of Sergei Eisenstein decided to conduct an experiment.  If you are an actor, you don't like the theory this guy came up with.  You see, he said that...oh, wait a minute.  Let me lay one on you.

Here.  Here is a picture.  Of a person.  Discernible data, right?  What you see is what you get?  What do you see?

Here is a woman, trying to decide whether she should wake up her child from a peaceful nap, because a book she just read told her she should make the child stick to a particular schedule.

Here is a woman who has just learned that her beloved dog will be euthanized.

Here is a woman who has just slain her youthful lover because he told her he was going to leave her and move to another country with her niece.

Eisenstein's theory was that, depending on *what* information you were given about the situation, and *when* you received it, the viewer would form (potential very different) opinions of what the character portrayed was feeling.  And he demonstrated this in an experiment with film footage that used the same images, but cut in a different order.  Depending on which cut a viewer saw, they interpreted the "story" differently.  But the stories reported were consistent within the context/cut viewers saw.

Therefore, the image of the woman above, taken from David Bordwell's Website on Cinema, has a range of potential interpretations in terms of "what is she feeling/doing," depending on where it is placed in the action.  And the amount of empathy you feel for her will vary, too.  Imagine if I had told you that this was a portrait taken in a jailhouse interview, by a photographer doing a series on serial killers?

EXHIBIT B: Just the facts, ma'am

Detective Joe Friday, a character in the television series "Dragnet" (sorry, I figure I'd better explain), had a signature line in which he directed witnesses to stick with "just the facts."  Intrepid reporters, too, were trained to sieve and distill witness accounts and get to the "truth" of the story.  An editor once warned me that it was important to get three accounts of a situation, to gain balance and perspective...but that much more than that, and you'd end up with a Rashomon situation.  (Go ahead, Google away on Rashomon effect.)  Essentially, Rashomon was a film that explored the same event through different witnesses eyes, a device employed many, many times since then, and which has obviously leant its name to the idea that just because accounts of something are *different* doesn't mean they are *wrong.*

Facts are facts.  But they are assembled into meaning.  (For a recent article on witnessing events and how our brains make meaning/create narratives, see this article in the May issue of Smithsonian online.)

EXHIBIT C:  My Grandma's perfume!!

Not "granny perfume," in which historical context in the form of time/era association is the first reaction to a given perfume.  I mean a literal "this smells like Person X," and Person X is a real-life, tangible (at least at one time), meaningful person in the smeller's life.  A person who conjures up a stew of memories, of associated smells, of associated emotions (both caused by Person X and connected to the era in which Person X had a significant effect on the smeller's life).  In other words, olfactory emotion.

I once gave a Lily of the Valley hand creme to a friend a generation older than me, and she put it on her hands, and cried.  She immediately assured me I had done no wrong, but that she had not smelled LOTV in a long time, not like that, on her hands...that the last time she connected LOTV and her hands was in her childhood, when her father, now dead, had gently helped her with a task that had caused her some travail and was happily concluded with picking some lily of the valley flowers.

I don't care who's nose is going to whiff some LOTV this May Day, and how trained it is; they are NOT going to have that response.  And I am hard pressed to agree that this kind of response should be ignored as part of the scent reaction.

EXHIBIT D:  Lock and Key no more, a.k.a. Viiiiii-braayyyyy-shunnnnnnNNNNnnnnsssszzzzssss

Turns out that theory about molecular shape and similarly shaped receptors and the limited number of each was troubling Dr. Turin, and he's been working on a theory.  Good.  Because simple math made it pretty clear that even the bumbling schnozzes among us are capable of discerning more smells than the number of "shapes" identified in the receptor mechanism.  Dr. Turin explains to Nancy Sinatra in a recent interview in MIT's The Tech Online; also see a quick overview in Science Daily from December of 2006.

I *love* this theory, for all kinds of reasons.  At the top of the heap is a connection I see between this theory and the physics and physiology and psychology of music.  But I'll come back to that in another ramble.

So, what we...that is, I, presenting to you...have here is this:

Scent, and therefore perfume, is perceived through one sense.  Mostly.  (Do those sparklies in SJP Lovely make anybody else think it's going to feel greasy?  Or that a greenish scent is by nature going to land in a certain part of your nose?  Or how about that hissing sound that comes out of a vintage atomizer...anybody else think ruh-roh, here comes an alde-blast? or granny pants?)  Okay, I cheated.  Take out the sight and the sound.  Stick to your olfactory receptors, only.  But how discriminating can we be?  How "objective"?

If the only other time we've smelled cinnamon is in a baked good, will we perceive a perfume containing it as sweet?  If we've never smelled cinnamon before, will we isolate it as a note, or reinterpret it as something else?  If the our major association with cinnamon is a delicious cinnamon bun, will we be happy when we smell it (mmmm, those delicious rolls), or anxious (argh, those annoying rolls of fat)?

What about familiarity?  If a note is "exotic," will we recoil?  Approach cautiously?  Embrace something different?  If we smell that same note on two different people, one a stranger, the other an intimate friend, will the effect be the same?  Will any difference we perceive be due to skin chemistry, or psychology, or both?

Brother, I am rambling.

And I haven't even tried weather yet.

Here's what I know:  I didn't know from perfume when I started.  And while smell might be a sensory input that goes straight to my limbic system, it had been the least explored and/or "practiced" of my senses.  I've put my eyes to work interpreting graphemic communication systems, interpreting 2-D and 3-D input for pleasure and survival.  I've put my ears to work learning how to translate phonemes into language, translate tones and pitch into music, identify pleasure (waves lapping) and danger (engine revving).  My fingertips can tell me if a wood surface is fully sanded and ready for sealing, if my child has a fever, if there is a leak in my bicycle tire.  My tongue can tell me if there is enough cilantro in the salsa, if another dash of bitters would be good, if the bread might be starting to get moldy.

Up until perfume, my nose was basically used for "eew" things.  You know, "eww, that's dirty laundry, alright," or "eew, that needs to get out of the fridge."  Or maybe a "yow" like "yow! something's on fire!"  Okay, wait a minute...I did get pleasure, too...honey locust in the spring...fresh breeze through the pines over the lake...compost ready to be called "humus."

Mmmm, I think I'm getting into issues of framework and language, or the absence thereof.  That's next week.  Suffice to say for now, I've got language up the wazoo for visual input.  A fair amount for auditory.  A working lexicon for tactile data.  A smidge for taste.  But not much for olfactory.

Back to context.

How we understand things is affected by what structures we have to process and express input.  We can try to be objective about how we take in that data.  And in many cases should strive to do so to the best of our ability.

But the idea of one scent, one meaning?



Diana said...

This is a fantastic post! Such a lot of food for thought. When it comes to art, I think the attempt to evaluate from an object place, with common frames of references, comes largely from a desire to be able to communicate our experiences of art with one another. At the same time, what we experience in art is deeply subjective. But I think that undefinable quality is one of the most wonderful things about art -- particularly music, visual art, and perfume.

ScentScelf said...

Thanks, D. There is a lot to chew on...and, in fact, I'm going to ruminate again. A few times. (How many stomachs does a cow have?)

Totally with you on frames of reference, desire to communicate. Tackling "language" is going to be one of those chambers of rumination. I do think that one of the most amazing things about art -- and communication, for that matter -- is how the universal, the common (w/in a given population), and the highly individual can each find a place to rest.

That is one way of defining the human experience, no?

Of course, part of the agenda is not so lofty. In the end, I'm thinking I'm going to end up asserting that by the time you pare down to what is *only* objective in smell, you'll be at least one step removed from the experience of it.

Not that there's nothing worthy in trying to be objective...I think it is necessary, in fact, to developing one language/framework for discussion. Or at least a vocabulary set.

BitterGrace said...

I agree, great post. I love the way you have fun with problems :-)

La Bonne Vivante said...

What a beautiful post; you have verbalized many of the problems/troubles that have been sort of buzzing around my brain lately like a fly trying to get out of a closed window! This is one I will save and read again on a rainy day; very interesting thoughts, great writing, excellent clarifications of difficult problems. I particularly liked your use of the eisenstein still to show how much context impacts understanding. When will we all learn that there is just no such thing as objectivity? Thanks so much.

Mals86 said...

(My dear SS, a cow has four stomachs. Or if you'd rather, four compartments to her stomach.)

Fascinating post. I will have to ruminate on these ideas as well.

I'm sure context is crucial. "My outcomes will be duplicated by other objective observers across the globe. Right?" I will admit upfront that I for one am not objective, not at all. And I don't feel all that guilty about it.

ScentScelf said...

BG, thanks. Might as well have fun, no?

La Bonne, that pesky buzzing is just what drives me to write sometimes. I'm glad you were able to get so much out of it...and you've re-planted one of my buzzing pesky think-abouts, the idea of objectivity and whether or not it exists (and if so, how, or is it a thing in tension, or or or....).

Mals, thank you. You are quite right; four compartments. Let's see if I ever make it to the abomasum on this topic... ;) (Hey! Kinda cool to find out that is also known as the "reed"; you know my woodwind brain is chewing on THAT.) Good for you for the no guilt...there should be no guilt in perfume. Unless, of course, that is part of the pleasure. (Oh, but I start yet another tangent....)

flittersniffer said...

Bumbling schnozz here! And getting more bumbling by the day - may we add hormonal turbulence as a route to different sensory perception, for I appear to be on a curious trajectory at this time of my life, and scents are not what they were, even a year ago.

I was interested in negative and positive associations of a particular known person with a scent. I am sure that can subliminally influence one to like something better than one otherwise might.

The masculine vs feminine scent divide is also hugely contextual - strip away those six pack ads and some scents could be more gender bending than they are allowed to be by the marketeers.

ScentScelf said...

Oh, hormones. Whether in the usual flux (something that happens for both genders, btw), or a more era defining whoopdangle, I am happy to add that into consideration.

Flittersniffer, I have no doubt that you could influence another's likings. :)

Yeah, who decided masculine/feminine? Who started with the pink for boys, then who shifted that to girls? Who put the bop in the bop she bop she bop? Seriously...I am puzzled by that. And a bit dismayed, when I see interested noses get told to turn away just because they are attached to Y chromosone bodies. (I do think, in my culture, at least, the pressure is much heavier on men to stick with the "masculine." As if. Isn't Old Spice a carnation?...indeed, and with jasmine and heliotrope in the listed mid notes. All based on the label and marketing. Hmmph.)

Olfacta said...

Much food for thought here! All I have to contribute is that recent research in sensory psychology points to cognitive involvement; in other words, the old theory that smell goes straight to the emotional brain centers, bypassing the "thinking" brain, appears to be flawed.

One representation of a face with one particular expression can be interpreted in endless ways. Especially if the expression is vague, as Eisenstein pointed out. But a drawing or photo of a face with an extreme expression (grimace of disgust, big goofy smile, for example) is so universally understood that "flash cards" of same are sometimes used to influence a response in a subject during psychology experiments.

Sex role socialization starts practically in the womb. I remember one experiment in which new mothers were instructed to bring their babies, dressed uttlerly neutrally in overalls, to the lab. A significant number of the mothers of the girls added pink shirts or lace or other "feminine" froufrou to the overalls.

And so on.

ScentScelf said...

Olfacta,a good point. I'd love you to point me towards the research you are referring to. I am trying my best to get up to speed on the academic side of this.

You are absolutely right to note that Eisenstein used somewhat generic facial expressions in his experiment. Regarding pictorial representations of more "extreme" emotions/reactions...You are suggesting, in a manner of speaking, that a photograph of a reaction to Secretions Magnifique, taken in Spokane, Seacaucus, or Seville, will be understood as repulsion in Samoa or either St. Petersburg? :) (There's a quiet buzzing in my head...I seem to recall that a few of the "clear and extreme expressions" do not translate to all populations...but your point is well taken.) Bringing the arrow back around to the question CAN you have universal meaning in a non-linguistic format? If so, can you in art? In scent?

Ah, picking up the gender thread.... Gender cues do indeed start early. There is another experiment which shows how people respond differently to babies *in utero* (parents included) if they are told a sex for that baby. Kinda makes my decade old rant against the meal of happiness query ("Girl or boy toy?") seem helpless and too little, too late. EXCEPT when you consider there was a third behavior, to the non-sexed babies, that found a middle ground. Gendering happens...but needn't so much.

Which is to say, while there is clearly biology at play, there is also clearly context. Overlap the continuums of possibility for a given accident of birth with the potential assumptions/behaviors directed toward that person, and you've got quite a range of possibilities. The materials and the reception/perception, both in play, as it were.

I did open this can o' worms up, eh? It is where my brain goes...though at the moment, I could use a between-course taste of "this perfume stinks!" or some such. ;)

Rose said...

This is all very interesting- especially the Einstein theory- I think it's in the eyes you can really see if someone if sad/ bored/ frustrated and so on

ScentScelf said...

Well, Rose, you've got me thinking again.

Eisenstein would have said that, when it comes to film, no, you can't tell just by the eyes which of those feelings/emotions, that context delivers meaning. But in person...we do learn how to "read" people we know.

So this latest avenue of Think that you open has to do with "what can we just know, and what do we actually learn to know" when it comes to reading the surface? Wait, this goes back to Olfacta's comment about research now showing that olfactory input actually does go through cognitive processing (no direct hit to limbic etc.).

Which goes back to...oh, but wait. I'll be mulling this all over for realz in another post. Meanwhile, I'm supposed to be waving hello. Hello! :)

flittersniffer said...

Got another one for you - smelling something in a particular way because you mistakenly believe it is something else entirely. Happened to me the other day and I felt such a numpty when I realised.
: - )

ScentScelf said...

Ah, Flittersniffer, that is a good one! Score one for cognitive processes, perhaps. Hopefully NOT score one for dirty rotten tricks.

Flora said...

Excellent post! You have certainly given this subject a lot of thought.

I know just what you mean about smell being associated with negative things - I always had a very acute sense of smell, and things that were merely unpleasant or annoying to most people were just torture to me. Of course I also enjoyed good smells, but in a world filled with industrial chemicals, bad cooking, and other people who seem to be allergic to bathing, a sensitive nose can really suffer, especially in childhood when you have little or no control over your own environment.

It was only when I began to grow my own fragrant flowers and then to appreciate perfume that I realized what a gift I had. Yes, I still get sick from bad odors, but I am equally transported by the ecstasy of a wonderful fragrance. A truly great perfume or heady flower can actually cause an altered state of mind for me, and most people will never have that experience. My garden and my perfume collection are my refuges from a modern way of life that seems to assault us with toxic things at every turn.

ScentScelf said...

Flora, welcome back, and thanks. :)

Ah, the gift of hyper-sensitivity. I am so glad you found the realm of the positive side, and how to access it, so that the problematic parts didn't define it for you. It can be a beauty thing...and I'm glad it is for you.

I think I would describe my most heightened olfactory happinesses as being lost in the moment, but not an altered state of mind. Adjusted or re-tuned, yes. :) I envy you your transported experience when they are pleasant, and am sorry for the assaults.

Ever hear of a psychologist/theorist named Dabrowski? His work was in Polish, but translations are available. Your experience reminds me of his concept of a "sensual over-excitability."