A deliciously dirty exploration of smell

This week my nose led me on a voyage of olfactory exploration at the Wellcome Collection. ‘Kicking up a stink’ featured an evening of drop-in activities and free talks on how ‘our noses betray the secrets of our unconscious, playing a key part in our perceptions of dirt, disgust and desire’.

I have been passionate about smells, scents and perfumes since I was a child. As an aromatherapist I was fascinated to hear bioscientist Professor Tim Jacob’s talk exploring the interplay of the brain and the nose in eliciting emotions, memory and perception. Tim is a professor at Cardiff University’s neuroscience division researching the psychophysiology of smell: how we smell, why we smell and how we are affected by smell physically and emotionally.

Smell and memory

Smells unlock memories and emotions. One whiff can recover a single moment from a simple childhood memory to a pivotal life-changing event. ‘The odor of tea and a slice of madeleine cake’ said Tim, ‘Unlocked the memories of French novelist Marcel Proust which fuelled his epic seven-volume work In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past.’ Imagine that – a scent that unlocked the memories of a lifetime.

Today the smell of fresh filtered coffee immediately returns me to Cape Town and my grandmother’s flat at the foot of Table Mountain. Every morning she made fresh coffee and drank it on the stoop.

Here’s the science bit…

Tim presented research that suggests aromas can affect areas of the human brain, such as vanillin, a compound of vanilla, which may have a pain-blocking effect and which makes us feel good. Interestingly, old books have a musty vanilla smell because they release similar chemical compounds. Perhaps British libraries should bring volumes out of the vaults because people tend to linger in and re-visit places that smell of vanilla.

An amazing study by Stockhorst et al suggested that patients with diabetes can be conditioned to have a physiological response to smell which affects their blood glucose levels.

To find out more about Professor Tim Jacob’s research visit his website.

Sweet dreams

The evening ended with an olfactory journey of deliciously dirty perfumes from Odette Toilette which evoked childhood memories of eating parma violet sweets. Odette holds monthly Scratch+Sniff events for those who, like me, are obsessed with all things smelly.


4 thoughts on “A deliciously dirty exploration of smell

  1. The smell of a biscuit barrel being opened always makes me think of my gran’s biscuit barrel, which would always have shortbreads in there. Vanilla has always been one of my favourite smells too, maybe subconsciously that’s why I became a librarian!

    • I think you may have discovered the source of your calling Emily! The smell of cream soda water always reminds me of my English grandmother. She would open a bottle and make vanilla ice cream soda floats whenever we visited in summer!

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