It Is Good to Smell You Again, My Friend

Covering over odors may be cutting us off from our younger selves.

Posted Apr 14, 2015

Aromas matter to us. There is a huge perfume and fragrance industry that supplies odors to stimulate sexual attraction, cover body odor, scent soaps and bring the smell of the oceans and forests into dens and bathrooms with air fresheners. 

Compared to our other senses—sight, sound, taste and touch—smell is relatively unimportant in our culture.

Since the beginning, humans seem to have been altering nature by tampering with all the senses but smell. Everywhere people sing and create music and musical instruments. With the invention of fire and taming the fermenting processes, we have explored the possibilities that our taste buds offer. Before written records, people molded, sculpted and painted. And we know that sexual experimentation is part of human history.

So it isn’t surprising that innumerable museums are dedicated to music, art, photography, cinema, food and sex, but no museum is dedicated to smell. When in 2013 the Smithsonian launched the show “The Art of the Scent (1889-2012),” it was the first major show to focus on aroma.

The show at the Museum of Art and Design, in New York, illustrated the ways in which scent could be appreciated as an artistic medium rather than simply as a consumer endeavor bottled as perfume or cologne. The exhibit didn’t uncouple scents from commercialism as much as underscore the strong connection made between the two in our culture.

Each of us has had moments of revelations when an odor triggers a long-forgotten memory—this is the way grandma smelled; this is the odor of the hair of my child. British psychologists Simon Chu and John Downes writes in Chemical Science, “odours can persist when memory traces from other types of stimuli degrade implies that the olfactory components of autobiographical memories may be longer lasting than other facets of the same experience. If the olfactory components of autobiographical experiences are more enduring, it follows that they are more likely to serve as effective retrieval cues.”

The olfactory receptors of the brain seem to be more enduring that other memory areas.  

Aromas also bond us to each other in fundamental ways. There is evidence that the smell of mother’s milk is critical in the well-being of newborns. Evidence points to infants preferring the smell of their mother to anyone else’s aroma for the first two months; babies are attracted to the smell of breast milk and by two weeks seem to be able to tell the difference between their mothers’ milk and that of other women. Researchers Marlier and Schaal found that newborns showed a preference for the odor of breast milk over that of formula.

Missing in our culture but present in several others is meanings that are given to particular aromas. As scholars Howes, Synnott and Classen point out in Anthropology of Odor, for us, smells are subjective, provoking feelings of pleasure or disgust. We react to odors but we don’t think in them the way we code for music or color. Smells lack symbolic value while other senses are laden with them.

I was struck by the differences attached to smells when I met an old friend in Kenya. We hadn’t seen in each in more than a decade. Upon taking my hand, I said, “It’s good to see you again.” He said, “It is good to smell you again.”

His remark is closer to the mark, I think. Infants are born with a sense of smell. Only later do they develop the ability to see. So aromas are more basic to us than is sight. To say how it good it is to smell one another reveals the ties that bind us in unconscious ways.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we were to sniff one another the way dogs do? Of course, we actually do that. Unfortunately, the smells we emit are covered over with artificial aromas that disguise that scent that is uniquely our own. I was happy to smell my friend again and not that of a deodorant or scented soap.

It is fine to alter nature the way we do with music, art and cooking. There is nothing wrong with perfuming the air to rid it of noxious odors and to recreate pleasant smells. But something is lost when the natural smells are so disguised that we don’t any longer know that fresh air smells like or the one unique aroma that our friends emit.