Monday, April 9, 2012

My nose knows no bounds

C'est mon gros nez, roughly translated to "Hey y'all, look at that giant schnoz."
My professor for comparative literature is difficult to understand sometimes. She's foreign, and though she gives some really interesting lectures, I occasionally struggle differentiating her one word from another, especially when she mispronounces often. Today, though I was busy scribbling down notes so I could review what in fact we'd been talking about all class period, I was also busy using another sensory system that she had spent quite a bit of time talking about. One that was, from a psychoanalytical point of view, more important than the hearing that was allowing me to listen to the lecture at all.

We don't put much value in our olfactory sense. While one of the most popular "would you rather" questions is whether you'd like to go deaf or blind, no one ever asks if you'd consider losing your sense of smell (shout out to my awesome friend Susan who wouldn't have to make this decision anyway - also, everyone should read her article on NBN titled "Senseless").

As I sat in class and inhaled in, exhaled out, I wasn't noticing the scent of the classroom. And to be honest, I still don't remember anything about it. But what we were talking about in class was the fact that our unconscious mind pays attention even when we are not. While we sit listening intently and writing out what our professor is saying word-for-word (I do this, does anyone else do this?), some part of our brain is busy taking in the scent of our surroundings - even if we are not paying any attention to it.

It's strange to me that it took a university lecture to make me realize this, when just a few weeks ago I walked into that same classroom thinking about how my unconscious had allowed me to connect my present experience with my olfactory sensory history.

The first time I walked into the building where my comparative literature class is held, I went down the basement staircase only to be met by a strangely familiar scent. On Facebook I wrote, "I know I say this everywhere I go - but the staircase leading to my class smelled like Disneyland. Indiana Jones."

When we went over the idea in class that sounds and smells are some of our strongest tools for sensory memory, I thought about how I came to reminisce on the scent of a ride at Disneyland.

It wasn't that I had actively thought about the musty, gas-y smell of the Indiana Jones queue and ride. In fact, until I went to class that first day I don't think I even knew that the ride had a scent at all. But once that scent was replicated, there was no question that Indiana Jones had its own wonderfully reminiscent odor.

The same thing happened to me last quarter when I was sitting in a biology lecture. Presumably my professor had brought her morning coffee with her to class, but how it managed to make the entire lecture hall - which seated about 100 people - smell so wonderful was beyond my comprehension.

I'm not a coffee drinker, but I have fond memories of sitting with my mom in Barnes and Noble when I was young, as she sipped on coffee and I dipped my biscotti in it when she wasn't looking - or when she was looking, she didn't really care. From childhood on, I continued to associate the smell with that wonderful sensory memory.

Not to beat the Disneyland horse, but the coffee smell fell into my life in multiple ways. One of the shops on Main Street, U.S.A. is a proprietor of coffee and mugs alike. The whole store smells like coffee all day long - a scent that, unlike the Indiana Jones smell, is very memorable and definitely part of the conscious mind.

The memory of the scent of my mother's coffee plus the memory of the store on Main Street made for a wonderful experience that morning in class. Though it was 9:30 am and I was falling asleep on my laptop, I felt alert just reliving my fondest memories.

We associate so many experiences with what we saw or heard as they were going on. Well, I've never had much strength in either category. I have a terrible lens prescription, so even though I always wear contacts I am constantly sub-par in the vision category. As for auditory strength, after going to a bunch of concerts as a kid and never wearing earplugs, my left ear is very sensitive to loud noises. I'm not lying when I say I have suffered permanent and slightly disabling hearing damage.

So what does that leave of the senses? Touch, taste and smell. Touch is a memorable sense, and so is taste. But those are things that I don't necessarily associate with reminiscences. I do hold exceptions for a few activities and experiences, particularly those involving my mom, but it's undeniably my sense of smell that produces the most visceral reaction in me.

One last scent was the real clincher for me in accepting my professor's analysis of this psychoanalytic theory. When I was little my mom gave me a few little trinkets from her childhood - a set of Barbie dolls from the 1960's and some jewelry. I'm not sure where the Barbie dolls went to (though I wish I did), but to this day I keep a little box of my mom's jewelry.

The jewelry came from her own child and teenagehood. She preserved the pieces in little boxes and kept them safe for decades. When they were handed down to me, I opened them and noticed this strange scent that is something akin to a musty cleaning supply or even a freshly manufactured item that still has the faint stench of machinery on it.

This doesn't sound like a particularly lovely scent. But whenever I took a whiff of the boxes my mother had presented her jewelry to me in, I was overcome by this feeling of "wow, a scent from the 1950's." Even now I realize how silly such a thought is, but when I go back into my mom's belongings and open up the same jewelry boxes, I can't help but feel the desire to inhale their strange scent and feel the same thing I did 15 or so years ago when I set my eyes and my nose upon them for the first time.

To this day I refer to that smell as "the scent of the 1950's." I've even subsequently approached my dad, asking him if it was a recognizable smell for him. He consented, but couldn't give much more clarity than that.

I have no doubt that of all the sensory experiences I've ever associated with my life, nothing begins to compare with the experience of smelling a familiar scent.

We are surrounded by sounds, sights, touches and even tastes all day long. After a while they tend to lose their significance. Or at least the clarity of their emotional origin for us. Once you've heard, seen, touched or tasted something quite a few times it no longer holds much meaning. But one thing that is incomparable is the reminiscence of scents.

Most smells are irreplaceable. They're, in a way, impossible to bring about again should they cease to exist. So we often forget them, holding them in the back of our minds without really expending much thought to their recall - especially since we know we could never do it justice through our mind's eye.

But when a scent inexplicably reappears in your life, it's something absolutely wonderful, beautiful, sometimes even tragic.

I never took a moment to think about how valuable it is to find a place that you can visit regularly that has such a strong sensory stimulus as a memorable scent. But after studying it for just one afternoon, I'll never take it for granted again. A scent can bring you - or at least remind you of - the most profound happiness of life, your own history.

No comments:

Post a Comment