If you’re close to my age, the scent of patchouli oil is likely to evoke memories of dark, stuffy dorm rooms, tie-dyed clothing or marijuana highs. Although I wasn’t deeply into that sixties scene, I do like the fragrance of patchouli. So does my much younger daughter-in-law. My best friend from college years hates it. These days, I prefer to use the oil in my diffuser, along with geranium and sweet orange.
The nose and the brain work together to detect smells. Olfaction, the sense of smell, is the process of detecting and processing chemicals present in the air. When these chemicals enter the nose, the olfactory system takes over to process them. Sometimes a fragrance may be enjoyable, such as perfume or the smell of cookies baking in the oven. The olfactory system also processes undesirable scents in conjunction with the brain. The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses that delivers immediate responses with instantaneous recognition and response.
Another scent that I enjoy is chlorine. The only explanation I can find is that it connects with my childhood and the swimming pool we had in Los Angeles. I practically lived in that pool as soon as the weather permitted. My father was in charge of pool maintenance. We had a filter system with three huge tanks that he monitored, regularly releasing the chlorine gas from a valve on the top. So, today I like the smell of bleach.
As a kid, I liked the smell of gasoline. That carried over to sniffing the top of my father’s cigarette lighter. These days I find those odors repugnant, as well as the smoke of cigarettes and cigars, even though I grew up smelling all of them.
The odor of coffee is another favorite of mine, as I imagine it is for many people. I don’t drink coffee, but the smell evokes pleasant childhood memories of early mornings in California, with my mother seated at the dining room table, a steaming cup in front of her.
Two smells I don’t like are vanilla and coconut, but only in cosmetics. I love foods with coconut in them, and I enjoy the flavor of vanilla in ice cream and cake. I can detect both odors in lotions and shampoos, and they make me recoil. I have no explanation for that.
As the brain processes scents, it accesses connections between specific smells and memories. This is why a scent can conjure up a memory of an event, place, time, or person. The limbic system sits in the center of the brain, and it has a direct connection with the central nervous system.
I have a particularly sensitive sense of smell. Sometimes I find myself in a place where the odor of a person or air freshener or food makes it almost impossible for me to stay put. I can even tell when someone has not showered before dressing in the morning. There’s a certain bed odor that clings to the body.
In humans, about 300 active olfactory receptor genes are devoted to detecting thousands of different fragrance molecules through a large family of olfactory receptors of a diverse protein sequence. The sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity.
What odors do you love? What memories do they evoke?