Courtney reflects on one of the best side effects of the perfume hobby–the ability to imagine scents.
I was sitting on the meditation cushion, feet tucked under my thighs, hands in my lap, back straining to keep from falling into its familiar bend. It was quiet in the airy meditation hall in Cambridge, save for the occasional rustles and shuffles of fellow meditators shifting position to keep a foot from falling asleep.
I had been to this center several times over the past few years, but I was not a dedicated practitioner. Some people mistakenly believe that meditation is relaxing (usually those who haven’t meditated much). In fact, meditation is tough. You try to keep your mind focused on your breath or some other object of attention, only to have it drift into thoughts, worries, and daydreams. Part of the meditation practice is learning to reckon with the random thoughts that pop into your head, the detritus of an over-busy mind.
But today, something new came into my mind—not a thought, but a smell. A very specific smell: Diptyque Eau de Lierre. I wasn’t wearing perfume because of the no-scent policy, yet here it was as if the smell was actually drifting into my nose. It had a distinct shape and character, a blend of watery green and sharp pepper. It was like the image of a person’s face.
At the time, I was just a couple years into a perfume hobby, The experience made me realize how learning about perfume was changing my brain, just as learning a new language would. I now had “thoughts” that were fully realized, specific smells. I’ve since had scents pop into my mind frequently, and I can sometimes imagine a perfume at will.
Perfumistas often focus on their ability to recognize notes and analyze perfumes they’re smelling, but equally interesting is our ability to imagine scents even when they’re not under our noses. It’s one of the perks of this hobby—you can start remembering, imagining, thinking in perfume.
Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska once wrote that if you love a woman who wears Arpège and then, years later, hear the name of the perfume, “won’t your mind call forth the particular form of this perfume just as quickly as if you had the bottle right under your nose?’’ In fact, scientists have claimed that it’s very difficult or impossible for most people to imagine odors.
The exception is perfumers and fragrance professionals. In his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, olfactory scientist Avery Gilbert describes how he and colleagues developed a test of olfactory mental imagery, adapted from similar psychological tests of visual imagination. Perfumers, they found, had more vivid smell imagery than other people. A recent study by French scientists found that even student perfumers have a great difficulty conjuring smells in their minds compared to professionals.
When we imagine visual images, we activate part of the brain involved in visual perception, as if we’re reliving the experience of seeing. Studies have found evidence that the olfactory center of the brain activates when people imagine odors, which raises the possibility that the same ability is there, but needs to be enhanced with practice. My recommendation: study some budding perfumistas over time to see whether their olfactory imagination blossoms.
So do fragrances pop into your head, and can you imagine them at will? Do you think this ability has improved over time?
Painting: Pierre Auguste Renoir, The Seine at Asnieres, 1878, via wiki-images.