Rachel Herz is the world's leading expert on the psychology of smell, and she got her start in this heretofore little-known discipline when, as a child, she found she liked the scent of skunk. It brought back pleasant memories of a trip to the country.
In this enjoyable venture into the misunderstood world of odor, Herz tells us that smells are a matter of taste
- so to speak, since the two senses are inextricably linked. Lose your sense of smell, and you lose your ability to enjoy food and other flavors. Thus Australian rock star Michael Hutchence, injured in a car crash, wept, "I can't even taste my girlfriend anymore." Not long afterward, he committed suicide. His injuries had blocked the part of the brain that controls the sense of smell.
My sister lost her sense of smell a few years ago after taking an OTC flu remedy. During the time before she gradually regained her olfactory enjoyment, she was on edge, constantly wondering if she had left a gas burner on, or if there might be a fire in the house. She mourned the loss of pleasure in eating her favorite – or any – foods. Her experience is typical. Even a simple cold can make it nearly impossible to tell the difference between a raw potato and a raw apple – Herz invites you to try a blindfold test to confirm this fact.
Herz, who is on the faculty of Brown University and is often interviewed because of her unique expertise, points out that one person's "Poison" perfume might be another's poisonously nasty odor. The sense of smell is connected more so than other senses to our memory of events and situations. People who grow up around privies will not notice their odor and may not be offended by them. The U.S. military has found it "impossible to develop a universal 'stink bomb' to use for crowd dispersal…no odor tested was found to be unanimously unpleasant," not even "U.S. Army issue latrine scent."
Wintergreen is a good example of the contrary emotional reception to a common odor. Americans love it; the British despise it. Why? Because wintergreen was used in various medicines during World War II, notably rub-on analgesics
- whereas in America, wintergreen has been used solely for candy and gum.
The Army didn't give up on olfactory research after its failure with the stink bomb. It uses a "Scent Collar" in tandem with a combat zone virtual reality simulation of battle to prepare raw recruits for war. At various points in the VR presentation, the collar emits the smells of "burning bodies, exploding bombs, blood and sewage."
False memories and food aversions can be implanted, so sensitive are our food/scent/taste correspondences. Experiments have been conducted to convince people that they hate strawberry ice cream and love asparagus. This type of manipulation, while it seems far-fetched, could be utilized to help people to control their dietary choices.
Herz explains the science of smell, but I suspect that most readers of this charming tome will skip to the many anecdotes and real-life stories. Most poignant, to Herz, are the sufferings of people who lose their sense of smell, and she is hopeful that the means to simulate or regain it will be developed. The technology that may make this possible is the e-nose, used in industrial settings to detect the quality of foods and other products.
Herz's book is a reminder that, insignificant as it seems in the catalog of ills, life without aromas
- the smell of coffee, burning leaves in the fall or new grass in the spring, roses, fresh bread or wintergreen
- would be sad indeed.