February 7, 2005:
It’s strange what kinds of things smells can remind us of. I was taking samples of chemicals for smelling from Prof. Lanny Liebeskind’s lab. I opened Cabinet labeled no. E-M and the general and complex mixture of the smells of hundreds of chemicals reminded me of…cashew nut fruit (‘kajucha fal’)
Another cabinet (I forgot which one) reminded me of the 'smell of the bedroom' of our neighbour, and old lady (‘Shejarchya aaji’) with whom we were on very good terms. She passed away a few years ago. Why was that smell wired into my mind? Because many years ago (8 or so), when I was in 10th standard, I used to spend a lot of time in that room, which was occupied by the old lady’s grandson. He was in 12th standard and was staying there that time, because it was closer to his college (Ferguson). We were very good friends for a short period of time, and I used to hang around in his room many times. It's strange that usually, these things would almost never be on your mind, and a single chemical stimulus is what's required to instantly elicit them.
Speaking of memories, here is what the perfumes from the perfume shop at Charles De Gaulle airport at Paris reminded me of on January 28th, 2005:
1. Eau des merveilles (Hermes): Raw tamarind (Actually I think this smell is quite common in Colognes)
2. Chanel no. 5 (The famous perfume created by Ernst Beaux): Nivea Cream
3. Amor amor (Cachard): Cassata ice cream
4. Envy me (Gucci): very nice, familiar but couldn’t place it.
5. BVLGARI: Lychee
6. L’ instant de Guerlain and Coco Chanel: Very nice and familiar but could not place them.
By the time I finished, the shop assistants (I am sure there is a nice French word for them) were hovering around me. Needless to say, they looked disappointed when I left after investigating many, and buying none.
And speaking of the subjectivity of smell, another thing today convinced me of the general nature of this phenomenon. My friend from Prof. Liebeskind’s lab, who was helping me out with making the samples, was used as a ‘test subject’ by me. Initially, he balked and wouldn’t go near any bottle. I told him that the smell was good. He said that he completely trusted me that it was good, but no, thank you, and please take the bottle away (The famous perfumer Luca Turin says that when he asks people to smell something at scientific conferences, they react as if he had asked them to remove their clothes or something!). Why do we have this natural repulsion against smelling? As if it were the most deplorable of our senses, something that is an unpleasant artifact? It is only now that we have begun to appreciate the enormous potential value that smell has, mostly unconscious, in our daily life and interactions, not to mention the fact that it forms the basis for a 20 billion dollar industry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in France, a country obsessed with smell. Perfumes are the third largest money makers for France, right below defence and aerospace!
Anyway, coming back to my friend, later, mirroring the way in which the frogs gradually lost all fear of the big log after they realized it was harmless, I slowly won him over. I gave him samples of beta-citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol, and of citral, the first two of which smell unmistakably like rose and the third one smells unmistakably of lemon/lime (at least to me and to many perfumers!), and are in fact common perfumery materials. After sniffing both, he said that not one of them remotely smelled like either rose or lemon. Either the sense of smell is REALLY subjective, or he has a REALLY bad nose! However, this incident again brings up the question of olfactory recognition as influenced by cultural and social background, and nationality. How many times has my friend, who is from Hong-Kong, actually smelt rose or lime?
Some other smells included valeric acid, which smells positively like the world's biggest men's locker room (I am NEVER going to smell that again), and guaicol, positively smelling like smoke.