Friday, May 20, 2011

The Gross Smells We Love

The first time I realized that enjoyment of scents was subjective, I was maybe in junior high visiting my grandmother and my cousins were around.  One of my cousins took a deep breath of the rural farm air and sighed.

"I love that smell!"
"What? You mean fertilizer?!"
"Yeah, it reminds me of home."

At the time I thought she was insane.  How could someone think cow manure smelled great? That's ridiculous! It's poop! Poop smells bad!  But it isn't just her and it isn't just cow manure.  It's the smell of the New York subway - which stinks to high heaven - but to someone, it's familiar and has good associations.  For me, it's the slough by Goleta Beach.  The smell of rotting fish - and whatever else is stewing in there - is something I associate with summer outings, picnics, friends, and family. Likewise, certain sweet smells, like Frebreeze, make me think of yucky experiences I've had (which I will mercifully neglect to share here).

Smell memory is a huge deal.  The smell of a lover, a place, a food your mother made, or even your family pet - just think of it and you can almost smell it as if the thing were right in front of you.  You can see the memory as if it had happened just yesterday.  And when you smell it next in real life, it only serves to add your present experience to all those you previously associated with the smell.  It's no wonder that strong smells have an even stronger pull.  So if the smell is more pungent, it's going to have a stronger effect right? Then the horrible smell of cow poop should have some pretty strong associations to go with it, right? Well I'm not sure that's exactly how it works.  But with a smell that is impossible to ignore, there is no question it would have a memory association. 

So the next time you smell something you think stinks, remember.  That smell might remind someone else of something really wonderful.  You never know. 

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