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?