“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” – Hellen Keller
Smell is the most sensitive sense. People can remember a smell with 65 percent accuracy even after a year, and nearly 75 percent of our emotional responses are linked to smell.
Since Brent grew up in the rural South, you would think that his strongest memory would be the hot, leafy smell of fresh-cut tobacco, the sweetness of the red clay mud, or the scent of his grandmother’s perfume (something called White Shoulders).
But this is not the case.
It’s true that Brent spent a lot of time as a child running through the grass barefoot, chasing fireflies at dusk, and swinging off the branch of the large chestnut tree in the backyard of his grandparents’ home. But he was always more romantic than athletic, and nearly every weekend resulted in a new injury of some sort. The scent that brings back all those childhood memories for him is the camphor antiseptic his grandmother used to cover all of life’s scrapes. Even though there are better treatments now, we still keep a bottle in the medicine cabinet and take a whiff when there are wounds of the soul that need a little something extra to help heal.
Like all the senses, smell develops in the womb and is fully functional before we are born. It peaks in our teen years and then gradually starts to diminish. Like so many things in life, we don’t realize how fleeting it is.
When new Neighbors step into Beekman 1802 Mercantile for the first time, the first comment they make is about the beautiful smell of the store. Oddly, neither of us nor any of our staff smell it anymore. That’s one of the many reasons that we are constantly inspired to create new fragrances.
When you first start to use a new home fragrance or perfume, the scent molecules waft through your nose and hit the odor receptors, which then send signals to your olfactory bulb in the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with emotion and behavior. There, your brain identifies the odor and decides what to do about it.
But very quickly—in as few as two breaths—the receptors in your nose switch off, and the perception of the smell starts to fade if your brain has perceived the scent to be non-threatening. With no danger at hand, the brain decides there’s little need to pay close attention to it.
This phenomenon is known as sensory adaptation, and it’s something we experience most intensely with smells.
New research by the University of Dresden’s Smell and Taste Clinic found that the part of the brain responsible for processing smell can grow with “exercise.” Those with just an average sense of smell can strengthen their olfactory bulbs via a regimen of trying out four aromas, twice a day, for about 30 seconds each (see the Summer Projects in the Summer 2018 Almanac to learn more).
Absence also makes the scent grow fonder.
Have you ever noticed when you return home from vacation that you can smell the scent of your favorite candle the minute you walk through the door? That’s because having not been near that scent for a period of time has enabled your olfactory receptors to reset.
Increased blood flow also seems to help the nose start smelling those familiar scents again. When we were developing some new fragrances recently, Brent was telling the story of his love of Campho-Phenique. Our perfumer said that some “professional noses” run up and down stairs to energize the nerve endings in the nose and heighten their ability to identify subtle notes. All of Brent’s running around just prior to hitting the pavement may have meant that he was exceptionally susceptible to the scent of camphor as it was applied to the wound.
Give it a try this summer, and don’t let a single memory blow right past you.
As featured in the Summer 2018 Special Edition of Beekman 1802 Almanac.