I miss hugs, an accidental brush against a stranger’s arm, the downy head of a friend’s baby as I curve my hand to support it. But above all, I miss how people smell. The soft, milky smell of that baby’s skin. Exhalations of coffee, garlic, chocolate. The drench of heavy perfume worn by the sort of woman who still wears a hat. Clean sweat and chlorine in the gym locker room.
Proust was wrong: Smell is the powerful sense. It cuts straight to the limbic system, where emotions and memories swirl. There, the scent molecules turn on certain neurons. But then what happens? It feels as though the scent just fades from memory as the molecules dissipate. But researchers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University found that a new set of “off” neurons spikes to cancel the smell message.
The same on-off mechanism might be used in sight and hearing, but those messages have to be decoded in a split second, lest they spell danger. Smell is a slow-dawning, lingering sort of sensation, so the on-off switch was easier to recognize. The researchers saw it first in locusts. Then, to their surprise, the same mechanism showed up in marmosets. Meaning primates. Meaning we turn our smells on and off, too—in the moment.
In memory, they linger. Childhood was honeysuckle growing over a fence, rubbery Band-Aids, my mother’s Shalimar, lime Jell-o, the classroom smells of overripe bananas, wet coats, pencil shavings, sawdusted puke, and boy sweat. When I came of age, the world of work was still tangible: musty libraries, waxed proofs, ink, rubber cement.
These days, though, we are all smelling less. Not only because work is electronic and windows seldom open—or because our new coronavirus can temporarily steal our sense of smell. No, I mean because avoiding the virus keeps us away from big, smelly crowds; the aromas wafting from a crowded restaurant kitchen; the open-air markets in faraway places; even holiday dinners.
Does this mean our memories will be less sharply engraved?
Museums were just beginning to use smells to their advantage. At the Gateway Arch, you could smell the riverfront in 1850—the wharf, the pollution, even a fecal whiff of cholera. Chicago’s Field Museum recreated the vile, steamy breath of SUE, a T. rex that once waded in Hell Creek, South Dakota. Rotting meat stuck in the teeth provided the inspiration. (They abandoned a stab at T. rex poop, because the closest diet would be a hyena’s mix of chewed-up meat and ground-up bones, and synthetic hyena poop is not easy to source.) In 2012, the German artist Wolfgang Georgsdorf debuted his Smeller 2.0 machine, pumping a succession of smells into the installation: horse, cinnamon, berries, gorgonzola. Each smell dissipated just as the next arrived, a trick the “smellies”—early movies that tried for fragrance—never managed.
The first art form to coopt fragrance (setting aside the culinary arts) had been theater. In 1868, vaporizers dispersed scent for a production of The Fairy Acorn Tree. In 1892, Oscar Wilde dreamed of replacing the orchestra with braziers of perfume, one for each emotion in his Salome. In 1959, film made its first attempt: A documentary called Behind the Great Wall used its Aromarama system to diffuse fragrance as audiences saw Buddhist temples, floral processions, and street markets in Hong Kong. Unimpressed, one critic announced that “the great green outdoors … came through as celery tonic.” A few months later, a comic drama titled The Scent of Mystery opened, using Smell-O-Vision to pump odors through a mile of pipes beneath the floor and up and out through a black spray nozzle on the back of each seat. The smells were made by a Swiss osmologist who was convinced emotions had distinct aromas. (He once ordered a window opened because the room stank of ego.) An extra track on the film carried cues to each smell—wine leaking from a cask, gasoline, talc, gun smoke, brandy, even fresh air. In 1981, John Waters would parody the attempt with Polyester, making Francine Fishpaw a renifleur, sexually gratified by odors, and releasing a scratch-and-sniff card that included farts, socks, and roses.
But back to the Swiss osmologist, because I think he was on to something. Smells “caress” us, or they are sharp, or they make us want to eat them, or they nauseate or intrigue or seduce. I press my cheek against the velvety skin of a newborn and draw deeply, inhaling innocence. The baby, meanwhile, has recognized Mom-smell since day two, easily distinguishing her scent from that of other lactating women. Smells have a genetic component, too: It is hard even for a trained sniffer dog to tell identical twins apart. But oh, what those dogs can detect. Thanks to a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 more sensitive than ours, they can be trained to find cadavers, missing kids, heroin, or bedbugs; they can use their sense of smell to alert to seizures, cancer, and now COVID. Even an untrained pup can sniff another dog and know gender, meal plan, and age; when they sniff us, they can tell where we have been and with whom, and they know if we are sick or well, happy or sad.
We draw shakier conclusions. I once dated a guy longer than I meant to because he wore Polo. Companies use chemical reproductions of baked bread, pine trees, or chocolate chip cookies to lull us, soften our hearts, open our wallets. My mom used to put fragrance on our telephone handset, which made even telemarketers more palatable. Now, my house has high ceilings and we keep it as cold as a castle, so I have tried a crazy (and pricy) succession of incense, heated oils, fragrance sticks, aerosols, plug-ins, candle rings, and potpourri—all of which lasted about a minute. Perfume does not last on my skin, either; I am left as hungry for pleasant smells as I am repelled by foul odors.
We talk about sniffing out wrongdoing; we follow a scent, announce that something “doesn’t smell right,” describe villainy as rotten or rancid. Can we smell dishonesty? We can certainly smell acrid sweat of fear. When study participants smelled the sweat of a first-time parachute jumper, their left amygdala lit up with involuntary empathy. The sweat of someone who just watched a playful scene from Disney’s The Jungle Book left them smiling, and the sweat of someone who just white-knuckled their way through The Shining made them hypervigilant.
We are most assuredly not basset hounds, but we are capable of distinguishing up to one trillion smells. Because we do not have names for the trillion, or need of them, our sense of smell remains underdeveloped. Now more than ever. I squint at my monitor, trying to fathom what the person in the little box is feeling. I have so few clues.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.