The horse's pasture to the East...

Friday, September 12, 2014

A SENSE OF SMELL, number one in a series for The Child Within

It stopped me in my tracks. For just a moment it was 1959 and my Mom was there, giving me a hug and kiss and telling me to be good for my Nana. She was wearing a flower print Summer dress with high heels to match. Her hair was naturally curly, a glossy dark brown and the only makeup she wore was a bright red lipstick. Her skin was perfect, that fine grained English skin with a natural blush in her cheeks. Her eyes were clear green and her smile was perfect. I thought she looked like Snow White. And her perfume was Guerlain's Shalimar, a classic scent that always looked like the rich purples you see on the horizon when you look in to a forest. It was perfect for her; sophisticated, clear, clean, and a strange Zen combination of cool and warm.

And then I was back, standing on a corner downtown waiting for the light to change and a woman, who had just passed me leaving a wake of Shalimar as she turned the corner. I never saw her face but, for just a few steps, I did follow her. I wanted that crystal clear memory back, of my beautiful, young Mother dressed and ready to go to a party, excitement bringing up the color in her face and a smile that was only for me.

Our sense of smell, also known as olfaction or olfactics, starts in the nose with cells that are similar to the sensory cells of an invertebrate ( bugs!) antennae . The odorants molecules bind to the olfactory receptors, coming together at the glomerulus, a structure that connects directly to the brain. Each receptor detects a feature of the molecule giving us a " description " of the odor. Input from two nostrils, known as binocular rivalry, allows the brain to create complex maps or scent images. Odor information is stored in long-term memory and has strong connections to emotional memory. This is possibly due to the olfactory system's close anatomical ties to the limbic system and hippocampus, areas of the brain that have long been known to be involved in emotion and place memory, respectively. (Definition from Wikipedia)

In my case, since I have a mild sinesthesia, I sometimes see certain odors as colors or hear musical notes. When I have a memory come to me from a scent as powerful as my Mother's perfume, I remember with all of my faculties. It's like small windows in time, putting me in my child within's shoes and being there, a kind of time travel. I am 8 years old with none of the adult issues or worries. At the same time I am aware of the memory and my present self, here in the twenty first century. When this happens, it
always confuses me for a moment, bringing me
to a full stop while I reorient myself.

Scent is one of our common denominators, connecting everything. When we can not see or hear, we can smell. Our sense of smell can be trained. In experiments comparing the ability to smell between  blind participants and the sighted, the scientists discovered that they were, inadvertently, training all of the participants to detect smaller and smaller amounts of the odorant chemicals . 

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”  Helen Keller

 As children all of our faculties are an open slate, a blank page, waiting to have our history written. But in experiments done with new born children, when the new mother's breast on one side was washed and the other left alone, 22 of 30 babies turned to the unwashed breast spontaneously. We are genetically prepared to recognize our Mother from our first moments of breath. 

It was also found that young women have a more acutely developed sense of smell and are able to detect the scent of their own children on objects that they have touched when the biological father can not. We are bonded through our sense of smell and the genetic code that allows us to identify our children or parents even when sight and sound are inhibited.

When I bake chocolate chip cookies I see my Mother's kitchen and hear her whistling to one of her favorite Doris Day songs on the radio. And, now, I see my sons as hungry little boys, drawn inside by the smell of cookies, dirty hands and grubby, sweet smiles waiting for their cookies and cold glasses of milk. 

And now, when I bake muffins in my son's kitchen, I see my Mom when she burned her fingers on a muffin tin and flipped the muffins all the way across the kitchen. And I see my oldest son sitting at the breakfast table, telling us he had just enlisted for the Navy. All of this memory overload happens while my Grandson plays with his beloved red fire trucks and comes to me to watch while I spoon the batter in to the muffin cups and I see my daughter in law stop to kiss my son good morning.

Without our sense of smell, our connection to our past, our present and our community and world would be tenuous and dim. Our ability to sense chemicals in complicated combinations is our oldest brush, wielding the power to give us the paint we need to create the canvas of our lives. For just one short moment I traveled in time and was able to tell my Mom, " I love you!" one more time because she favored Shalimar perfume.

Sent from my iPad

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