Why "Smell" Takes us to Another Time and Place

Smell jumps from the cerebral cortex, straight to the limbic system.

Posted Sep 29, 2017

used with permission / morguefile
Source: used with permission / morguefile

A whiff of a clove cigarette catapults me back to a restaurant shack in Indonesia suspended over the water on rickety wooden stilts. In fact, I was inspired to write Writing from the Senses when I walked past a hippie in Sausalito who was smoking a clove cigarette and immediately felt I was back in Indonesia where the smell of clove cigarettes permeated the restaurant.

Smell bypasses thought, jumping from the cerebral cortex straight to the limbic system, an ancient section of our brain. It can snap us to another time and place, and excavate memories and emotions long forgotten.

Smell has been called the mute sense because scents are often difficult to describe. We use similes (the baby smelled like caramel) or rely on the fact that others have smelled what we describe. Sometimes we resort to vague descriptions of how smells make us feel: It smells repulsive; it smells delightful. While we find subtle gradations of color (fire engine red, crimson, rose), we don’t have such fine-tuning for smell.

As a writer, I’m aware that the sense of smell is underused, so I try to pay attention. On my walks, I revel in the spicy scent of eucalyptus. At the hardware store, I sniff the mothballs and cedar. In Paris and Florence perfumeries, I sort through sweet florals and earthy musks.

Strolling through North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco, I think “What does coffee smell like?” Well, it smells like coffee. Then a friend hands me a raw coffee bean and it has no smell at all. It’s the roasting that brings out the scent we call coffee.

With certain foods, just say the word and most of us know the smell, begin to salivate if it’s something we like to eat. Caramelized onions. Raw garlic. Adjectives come easily, smell often connected to taste.

When Molly Birnbaum, an aspiring chef, lost her sense of smell after an accident, she said bread was like a grainy sponge and coffee was merely bitter heat. To those who haven’t lost this sense, coffee may smell bitter or acrid. Garlic, sharp or pungent. But what does that really smell like? Is there a simile that would convey the scent in a fresh way? “The garlic smelled like razor-sharp knives.” “The stewed cabbage smelled like rotten breath.” 

The same is true when we’re talking about roses or jasmine, baby powder or play-doh, fresh ink on a printed page. It may be challenging to describe a smell, but rise to meet the challenge.

If you were deprived of other senses, would your sense of smell be keener? Helen Keller, who lost her senses of sight and hearing at the age of 19 months was so attuned to smells, she could tell a thunderstorm was approaching by the odor coming up from the earth. Her early lessons were filled with the “breath of the woods—the fine, resinous odor of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes.”

Prompt: Come up with five similes that describe smells. Here are a few to get you started: coffee (smells like...), onions, mothballs, jasmine.