Smells Like Home

As a child, I had this toy slime called “Gak” (80s and 90s, baby). It came in different colors, but my favorite was the white one. It had a certain scent to it… earthy and artificial. Whenever I think of the slime, I remember my room with the stereo system next to the window, equipped with empty cassette tapes ready to record my favorite songs off the radio, boy band posters on the wall and a sense of shame in the back of my head when I ran to the ice cream van at age 12 once the bell chimed in our small town gossipy German street. I watched My Girl several times that summer. Eating ice cream.

The scent of fog also does something with me… Artificial fog. It’s weird and I will try to understand it myself and then explain. In 2012, I visited Universal Studios Hollywood for the first time, and Halloween Horror Nights became my ultimate go-to. It takes place on select nights September through November and employs artificial fog (for dramatic effects in certain areas, obviously). I could stand in the fog for hours and be a happy camper. I believe it’s the sensation of being in a different world, with a (great) hint of danger, but knowing nobody can hurt you. The smell of dampness combined with the sweetness of cotton candy and the distant cloud of grilled burgers is right where you walk from Super Silly Fun Land and Minion Mayhem through little France or the streets of London toward Universal Plaza (yeah, I know the layout in my sleep). The fog is the strongest in those streets… and on the Studio Tour when you’re chased (on foot) through the backlot. Jurassic Park has the same special fog effects, which makes it one of my favorite attractions. Again, being emerged in a world where you get a sense of danger, but with a security that nothing will happen to you, is the ultimate olfactory thrill.

Yankee Candles, Bath and Body Works and all things fall: Once my favorite season rolls around, I’m unstoppable. Home Sweet Home, Autumn wreath, Spiced pumpkin, Cinnamon stick, Marshmallow Pumpkin latte, Salted Caramel Pumpkin, my hairs stand on end, my pupils enlarge, my hands grab a tote and I push old ladies aside with my coupons. I have no control over myself come fall. Basically anything cinnamon, perhaps a hint of vanilla (and sometimes coconut), but cinnamon is always my go-to. If I must analyze this notion, I would say it’s my teenage years and American culture personified. The best Halloween I had was at a sleepover with some of my girl friends in High School, watching scary movies and eating the candy we had just harvested trick-or-treating (although you’re technically not supposed to past the age of what? 10?11?).

For me, everything stands and falls with a smell… attraction in a partner, comfort at a work place, restaurants, cars, my home most of all… and yeah, me. I have no idea what I smell like. That’s for others to judge, but with all the pumpkin and marshmallow and cinnamon and vanilla, I’d say I smell like fall. And adventure… Kidding… Just fall. American fall. At a country home. In October. At night. In the fog. Yeah.

#30DayWritingChallenge

Day 25: Your favorite smell

Follow your nose

Scents have this incredible power to bring us back to a snapshot of the past. They leave a good or bad impression when we meet someone new. And they help us to avoid bad situations that we associate with equally bad memories. Have you ever noticed how if you’re not on the same frequency as another person, you also can’t smell them or their smell is unpleasant to you? It’s not a coincidence. Our sense of smell works in an incredible way to help us attain a better judgment, when head and heart are at war (it happens), among other things.

The odor molecules that we breathe in (yes, absolutely everything in our world is made up of molecules), pass receptor cells in our body which then generate an impulse (http://bit.ly/1EYOSZy). A couple of steps and an olfactory nerve later, the impulse(s) pass the smell information to the olfactory bulb which is responsible for processing the signal. All of these stages are linked to the parts of our brain that feel, judge, and remember.

Smell and memory are thus closely linked. According to some sources, they are even more connected than any other two senses. Smells evoke emotions, which may lead to actions. This is what the perfume industry counts on with their marketing strategy. We’re essentially being manipulated– surprise! According to them, you can be a sexy man-eating vamp, an innocent flower-girl enjoying the summer breeze on a swing hung from a tree (too vivid?), a virile power house in a 2009 Mercedes SLR (think black and white) or coolness personified, riding a horse and smell like the reincarnation of the Marlboro man (without a side of smoke). Fascinating. Still, if you’ve noticed – the same scent has a different note on each person – ah, the beauty of individuality.

Floral scents are actually mood-manipulators, according to a research study at the University of Pennsylvania (http://bit.ly/1mPRPhi). It found that due to our better mood as a result of smelling flours, our memory is actively searching for a connection in its dusty shelf to match that mood. Furthermore, they found that floral odors can not only make you happy, but as a consequence, they promote social interaction. Now don’t go running to the next Sephora in search for last year’s Kenzo. Your choice of smell may evoke a reaction in others that you may not have intended – at the work place, for instance. In a different study, results showed that male co-workers devalued the candidate’s job related activities when they wore perfume (http://1.usa.gov/1zNHNLf).

The smell of a spiced pumpkin candle can be overwhelming. Or in my case, it makes me feel at home. Since I have a strong affinity to Halloween and Christmas, I place all smells that I remotely associate with these holidays in my comfort zone. I also decide very quickly if I like a person or not based on their smell. Very rarely does a person not have a smell to them – and it’s up to your brain to decide whether it’s a GO or a NOOOOO…. but you will KNOWWW (sorry, I’m on a roll)!

The sensation of nostalgia and smell being linked is basically due to our learning process. Pavlov’s classic bell and saliva generation. We’ve been trained in a certain way to associate memories with a smell. “It’s often said that a person is the sum of their memories. Your memory and recall is what makes you who you are” (http://bit.ly/19iu81z). Of course, the human memory system is more complicated than just the sum of the smells it has once inhaled. The olfactory-evoked recall is what we call a memory evoked by a scent, and idealized in that sense (http://bbc.in/1dOJqyv). We drown out the negative memory because the smell we remember was filtered through our memory and eliminated:  poof – bad memory be gone.

It’s all the nicer that we can create new memories with new smells right now – being in a certain situation for the first time, meeting a person for the first time, visiting a place for the first time. All of these first times may be future memories that your brain will remember. And while you inhale that day’s memory,  you just think to yourself “Oh, as if it were yesterday”.