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The Significance of Sniffing: A Reading List on Smell

A man sniffing a mushroom
Photo by Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

By Genevieve Fullan

Every spring there is a moment when I am overcome by the scent of the new season. Sometimes I’m outside, sometimes it floats in on a breeze through windows thrown wide open; but wherever I am, I stop, shut my eyes, and inhale. Spring smells the same every year, and that scent is sharpest when the season is new — before the smell grows familiar and is relegated to background noise. This kind of experience isn’t unique to spring. Every season has its own scent. The musty wet decay of fall. The ozonic crispness of the first snowfall. The sharp green of freshly cut grass. 

Sometimes I’ll catch a scent that evokes something I can’t quite grasp. I only know that it is familiar. Whatever experience attached to it lodged too deeply in my memory bank to be accessible. In these instances, I find myself chasing after the smell like Proust with his tea-drenched madeleine, trying to both identify the scent and hold on to the sensation it inspired. Our sense of smell has such a powerful link to memory that it will recall even these incomplete moments, in which we’re sure of nothing except that we’ve smelled that aroma before.

Despite its power, smell remains the least understood of our senses. Dismissed by Enlightenment-era philosophers like Kant as our least intellectual, by virtue of being the one that ties us most closely with animals, our sense of smell wasn’t considered worthy of study in the past. Now, that appears to be changing. We have a renewed interest in this most mysterious of our five senses. Books like Avery Gilbert’s What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life and Harold McGee’s Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells explore the science of smell in depth. A developing frontier in virtual reality technology is to make the experience more immersive by adding scent. With COVID causing anosmia (the loss of smell) in many people, sometimes for months at a time — for some maybe even permanently — it’s no wonder we’ve gained a new appreciation for this forgotten sense. (Having contracted COVID while writing this, I find myself taking deep inhales of anything heavily scented, even more obsessively than usual, to reassure myself that I haven’t been affected by this particular symptom.)

Last January, after our first pandemic Christmas, I purchased a sample set of perfumes from niche perfumery Imaginary Authors, quaintly named for the fictional personalities that inspire each fragrance. (Their sample set is aptly named the Short Story Collection.) What began as mere curiosity spiraled into an obsession, and I have since accumulated a shelf of books on the topic of smell alongside an ever-growing collection of perfume samples. This reading list explores the many facets of scent, from the science of how we smell to the link between scent and attraction, but consistent among them all is an enamored fascination with how we perceive the world through our noses.

How to Make Sense of Scents (Rachel Syme, The New Yorker, February 2021)

If you’re a Twitter fraghead (a term for a perfume aficionado), you might be familiar with Rachel Syme and her perfume genie. She gives her followers a prompt, such as relating a specific memory where you felt truly happy, and she responds with a perfume to match. It’s probably my favorite thing on the internet, not just for the discovery of new perfumes, but for the surprisingly beautiful writing that these prompts inspire. 

In this article, Syme invites you into her lifelong obsession with scent by teasing out all the strangeness of our sense of smell — the difficulty of describing fragrances, the way the acceptability of an odor changes between cultures and contexts, and the constant human practice of altering our olfactive environments. 

Our own experience confirms that smells are subject not just to major cultural changes but also to minor shifts in context: the same smell that greets you at the door of a cheesemonger has a very different effect when confronted at the door of a porta-potty. Where McGee seeks a common vocabulary for exploring the osmocosm, Muchembled reminds us that the variables of time and place may defy a truly shared language. What we smell depends on what’s in vogue and what’s valued—on what cultural forces happen to be swirling in the air.

Transcendent Compositions: On Making Perfume and Writing Fiction (Tanaïs, Lit Hub, May 2018)

Laura Yan writes about the need to move away from the term “oriental” in perfume sales for MIC.

Something that often gets left out of conversations about Western perfumery is its inextricable ties to colonialism. The European quest for spices is well known, but the other side of this quest was a desire for so-called “exotic” fragrant materials. It’s a history that reverberates well into the perfumery of today, most evidently in the persistent use of the term “oriental” as a fragrance category. 

Tanaïs grapples with these ties alongside her own history — cultural, personal, and familial — with perfume. For Tanaïs, both fiction writing and perfume are “ways to escape material borders.” Both offer a mode of expression and a way of understanding the world. If you enjoy this essay, be sure to read Tanaïs’ recently published memoir In Sensorium: Notes for My People.

Nanu’s tastes were village girl through and through: she loved a bright red lip and attar of jasmine, a narcotic floral with an animal stink. I trace its scent back to a memory of having pneumonia as a kid. One morning, when I couldn’t stop throwing up bitter medicine, Nanu dipped a pair of cotton balls in her jasmine attar and tucked them into my ears. I lay with my head on her lap, until the scent lulled me to sleep. Whereas a body cannot escape circumstance—in my grandmother’s case, she married at 13, did not finish school and lost her son and husband at a young age—a perfume lets us do so, if only for a moment. In one breath, I experienced illness, relief, love, and history. A single olfactory moment distills a myriad emotions and experiences, just as one line can illuminate an entire story.

Smell You Later: The Weird Science of How Sweat Attracts (Sarah Everts, The Walrus, July 2021)

Anyone who’s ever found an intimate partner’s body odor appealing shouldn’t be too surprised to find that human sexual or romantic compatibility can be determined through the smell of our sweat. Sarah Everts tests this theory firsthand by attending a smell dating event in Moscow — where participants are matched based on how much they like each other’s stench. Participants wipe their sweaty pits with a cotton pad, deposit it into a numbered jar, and proceed to smell each one before submitting their top five. Matches are made between people who pick each other’s scent, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. 

If that’s not enough to pique your curiosity, Everts also offers some insight into the surprising power of the human nose and the ways in which we use our sense of smell to suss out other humans even when we don’t realize it. (You’ll find yourself wondering about your own handshaking behavior after this.) I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. 

I note the numbers of a few samples that I’m on the fence about because I’ve got to give the organizers a list of my five favorites. And then I hit jar fifteen. It smells to me like sex epitomized. When I sniff again, trying to tease apart the aroma profile, I can detect the standard goaty, oniony background odours of another human, very similar to all the other samples. But something in that mix made me want to sniff again, ASAP. The odour didn’t send me into an erotic paroxysm, but it was fundamentally appealing: it triggered an instant reminder that there’s this great activity one can engage in with another person and it’s called sex.

The Odor of Things (Scott Sayare, Harper’s Magazine, December 2021)

Chavie Lieber also writes for Vox about the move towards AI in developing new perfumes.

We begin in Grasse, the historical capital of perfumery, with legendary perfumer Jean Carles. Carles is famous not only for creating iconic fragrances, such as Ma Griffe and Miss Dior, but for bringing some method to the haphazard madness of composing perfumes, which used to rely primarily on happy accidents. Still, as Scott Sayare points out, “His taxonomy could not say what formulas would actually smell good, or why. At best, it could help to organize the process of trial and error that would inevitably precede the discovery of one that did.”

Decades later, the top players in the flavor and fragrance industry are still attempting to streamline the process of scent composition. It’s a $30 billion-a-year industry: developing new perfume ingredients at the molecular level for everything from high-end perfumes to the cardboard air fresheners you hang on your car’s rearview mirror. The latest development in the science of fragrance creation appears in the form of AI programs that will compose scents under specific parameters. But while we’ve come a long way since Jean Carles developed his method, there remains a level of guesswork in creating fragrances, reflecting our limited knowledge of how smell works. 

At the very top of the nasal cavity, up between the eyes, sits mucosal tissue known as the olfactory epithelium. It is dense with neurons, and embedded in these neurons are proteins known as odorant receptors. Odorant receptors bind the volatile compounds we inhale, converting them into electric signals that will, eventually, register in our consciousness as smell. The nature of these receptors—how many kinds there are, which molecules they respond to—is central to our experience of scent. It is also, for the most part, a mystery.

The Many Ways COVID Changed Our Relationship to Smell (Sarah Laing, The Kit, March 2021)

It’s nearly impossible to write about smell these days without also writing about COVID-19, because of one distinct symptom: the loss of smell. In this conversation with Montreal-based perfumer Dana El Masri, Sarah Laing discusses the many ways COVID has affected the way we relate to smell. This goes beyond our increased awareness of it as we monitor ourselves for symptoms; moving back out into the world, the strong connection between smell and memory will affect how we perceive the odor of sanitized spaces, potentially shifting our association from one of safety and comfort to one of anxiety and paranoia. 

But it’s not all bad. El Masri also speaks of perfume as a mood booster: “I noticed people would buy perfume as this small pleasure to bring them joy during this time.” As someone who regularly dons a spritz of El Masri’s Neon Graffiti, I can attest to the effectiveness of this practice. The blast of fizzy citrus and sharp green leafiness that mellows into a sweetened jasmine heart brings to mind the first warm days of spring and offers an escape from pandemic drudgery. 

Most of our interactions these days are virtual, meaning we’re missing out on olfactory cues that we’ve been subconsciously leaning on all our lives. It’s yet another reason why Zoom meetings feel deeply unsatisfying—and why they’re so exhausting, as your other senses try to make up for that information deficit. “We smell with our brain,” says El Masri, noting that the brain processes smell, memory and emotion in the same area, known as the amygdala. “The nose is a tool, and there’s a reason it’s in the middle of our face.”

Can a New Perfume Rekindle Eroticism? A Proposition for 2022 (Laura Regensdorf, Vanity Fair, January 2022)

If smell is central to how we relate to other people — whether or not we’re aware of it — then it stands to reason that the pandemic has altered our interactions with one another on a far deeper level than we may have realized. Laura Regensdorf wonders about the effect not just of anosmia, which has been linked to depression and lowered quality of life, but of our now-limited chance encounters, and the way our sense of smells dulls to what is familiar. “You’re unlikely to bury your nose in a lover’s perfume-tinged scarf (or armpit) if you’ve eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her,” she reasons. “This flattening of the sensory landscape might add to a feeling of monotony, a dullness of desire.” The solution? Perhaps it’s found in a new perfume.

Perfume is difficult to pin down. In the case of Spell on You, my imperfect nose, only recently liberated from chronic allergies, catches a hint of Haribo peach that softens into a moody rose—practically begging for a hotel bathrobe. My boyfriend, after sniffing unbidden at my head, told me I smelled “as if a fancy lady sent you a note card.” The comments section on the fragrance website Fragrantica swings from pronouncing it a “summery nonchalant chef d’oeuvre” to something surprisingly demure, given the name. “You could easily wear this at the office or as a clerk wanting to smell well-groomed, but nothing too noticeable,” the person writes, with a twinge of disappointment. But isn’t there subversion in cosplaying a prim stereotype, rule-abiding here, something-something there? I think of Maggie Gyllenhaal slow-licking an envelope in Secretary. Office-appropriate? Every bit.

Engineering Replacements for Essential Perfume Ingredients (Courtney Humphries, Wired, October 2021)

Noy Thrupkaew reports for The Washington Post on the latest development in restricted perfume ingredients.

The perfume industry is constantly changing, sometimes to keep up with shifting trends and sometimes because it has to contend with restrictions on ingredients. These restrictions, regulated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), and influenced by the much stricter EU, have caused an uproar among perfumers, especially where oakmoss is concerned. Oakmoss provides the base for two major perfume types — chypre and fougére — and without it, a fragrance changes substantially.

Courtney Humphries dives into the complex world of fine fragrance design and outlines the challenges faced by perfumers as they contend with losing some of the building blocks of classic perfumery. Though this article is a decade old, the debate around oakmoss and other restricted (or outright banned) ingredients rages on. Some perfumers have adapted to these restrictions, reformulating their fragrances with synthetic replacements, or finding new combinations of ingredients to achieve a similar olfactive effect. Others, like perfume writer Luca Turin, have a more drastic opinion, asserting that such restrictions render the art of fragrance “officially dead.”

Although IFRA restrictions affect both natural and synthetic ingredients, they pose a particular problem for the natural ingredients, which can’t simply be tweaked at the molecular level to make new compounds with almost identical scents. For example, IFRA limits levels of methyl eugenol, a chemical component of many natural materials, because it was found to act as a carcinogen in rodents. Not only is methyl eugenol a component of rose oil, one of perfumery’s most prized ingredients, it is also found in spices such as clove and pimenta berry. The amount of methyl eugenol in a perfume must be controlled across its entire formula, so one material that contains it may have to be sacrificed for others. To replace a natural ingredient that traditionally has contained methyl eugenol, makers like Mane have to return to the raw materials, trying to find a new means of extraction whose result complies with the rules.

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Genevieve Fullan is a writer based in Toronto and is currently at work on a Young Adult novel.