Flashback: Reflections on Scent

This is a throwback entry from my Myspace blog, back in 2008 when people were still on Myspace. I loved writing about this topic and hated the idea of leaving it to languish in that wasteland. So, here is another Liber Vix interest: Scent and Perfume!

I'm nearly finished reading What the Nose knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, which has me thinking about the role scent has played in my life and its incredible power to evoke mood, memory, and ambiance. The book is basically about the history of the search to classify, dissect, and quantify scent, and the ability of humans to describe subtle variations in both the sweetly sublime and the nauseating scents the world contains. It's also about how scent is used to market products, subliminally advertise, and can classically condition people to associate scents with pretty much any other situation. Really fascinating stuff, a concept I've been enamored with ever since I was young.

I have a pretty good nose, meaning that I'm able to detect the tiniest hint of scents in the air, and a lot of my memories are complemented by or grounded in scent, for good or for ill. I associate different time periods with certain scents. For instance, the summer of sixth grade is eternally White Musk. The summer of seventh grade was this terribly cheap body splash called clean and natural, a watery floral pierced by a seriously high alcohol content that I for some odd reason loved. I still have a bottle of it, faded and reduced to almost pure alcohol. But I can open it and still get a hint of the ocean and lilies.  But more importantly, who I used to be. So I keep it.

Going to the waterpark as a child conjures up a conglomeration of sun-heated sand, chlorinated water, sunscreen, the sticky sweetness of cotton candy, the cool air at sunset. This is a potent memory for me, but I lack the skill or perhaps just the words to describe what exactly the cool air at sunset smells like, the feeling of wind against skin that spent hours upon hours in cold water and just finished taking a hot shower in the locker room....Utterly clean.... without the aid of more adjectives or nouns that beg for more adjectives to describe them. And so on and so on. With more knowledge I could break down the particular molecules that create the wet, clean earth scent of ozone in the air that allows me to know just when the possibility of rain in looming in the distance when nobody around has a clue, or how the scent of chlorine wafting over from the apartment next door's pool evokes summer in my mind.

Fall is ripe with even more memories. A fragrance my grandma used to wear, a pretty cheap oriental musk called Ciara, has become one of my all time cool weather favorites because a few minutes after this somewhat intense fragrance hits my skin, it melts and mellows into a warm, slightly spicy scent that feels like a blanket around me and the memory of a hundred kisses. But how imprecise and imperfect is that? How the hell should you know what a hundred kisses is like for me? It's positively maddening.

Could I tell you about the mood created by walking in the woods on a perfect Indian summer afternoon, the sky blazingly blue and the trees red and gold?The sweet-spicy of apple cider and the earthiness of hay? The smell of shuffling through leaves, warm and green and slightly wet and musty underneath all at once? Would it be the same for you? Not even remotely. Which is what makes it so incredible and varied...the exact same compilation of elements will create a totally different memory for you. What I find intoxicating you might find disgusting. Even today I cannot get near the smell of one type of frozen meal, I think It was peppered beef something or other, that my grandma ate a few times when she was slowly dying of Alzheimer's. There's nothing inherently bad about that food, but the smell of it reminds me of dirty sheets and claustrophobia and loneliness and that smell would make me want to retch if I smelled it today. Pure conditioning, I know, but there's the power of it.

I also loathe the smell of Clinque Happy, which definitely does not make me so. Probably because I don't like citrusy smells, at least the ones like grapefruit. Pure orange or lemon is fine when it's like Pledge or the actual fruit,  but grapefruit citrusy smells like a sweaty body to me. The kind of body odor that comes when you do still wash and use deodorant, but it doesn't work very well. Which is different from the smell of bodies that never get washed at all, like the smell of some homeless people I've walked by at the library. Two very different sweat smells.

I love other perfumes though. Right now I have Juicy Couture, Prada Tendre, and Nina Ricci Nina in heavy rotation. But I'm looking for something heavier, like my beloved Ciara. I've had brief love affairs with Estee Lauder Beautiful, Avon Far Away, and Bath and Body Works White Tea and Ginger that I come back to occasionally when the mood is right.  I think my overall theme is feminine and slightly flowery with a warm spicy or musky base. Sometimes heavier on the oriental notes , but always unique and memorable. Food smells are nice sometimes, pumpkin and vanilla and anything warm and comforting.

The overall point is the emotions created by scents are impossibly diverse and dependent on personal tastes and memories,and  the idea of breaking  them down into their base parts and common denominators is an admirable task but utterly daunting. The book wondered why there were magazines devoted to cigars and wine aficionados but none for scent-lovers. I would totally read that magazine, fat with those marvelous little scent strips. Every pull of the paper a little hope that this scent will be THE ONE, your molecular soul-mate. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go see if it's a warm vanilla sugar day, or more like rain-drenched leaves. Ah, decisions, decisions.

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  1. Loved reading this post! Absolutely, the smells are so powerful. My dislike for citrus and artificial orange began when I was 8 and had acute appendicitis, ate an orange flavoured wafer which made me so sick! There are also so many pleasant associations with so many other scents/smells too!

    That book sounds fantastic, will try to get my hands on it!

  2. Classical conditioning in action! For me, whenever I go on a vacation, I try to start wearing a new perfume when I go, so I will always associate that particular scent with the trip, keeping the memory more vivid in my mind. Oh, and here's the Amazon page for that book, it was really intriguing! It all makes me wonder, if perfumes smell so dfferent on different people, how they manage to make anything that smells generally good at all, or who quantifies what's good or not, and how. Heady stuff, indeed!


  3. Oh yes! The conditioning is so basic and primitive like Pavlov's pouch! Thanks for the link, I will surely check out :)


Please leave me comments if anything strikes your fancy or if you have any helpful suggestions. Remember, I'm no expert and am just sharing my truth. Hopefully you will find something useful to take with you!

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