In The Mind’s Nose : Olfactory Imagination

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.

renoir

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.

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55 Comments

  • Cornelia Blimber: Hi Courtney, this is a fascinating aspect of our hobby. Besides my ”bodily nose” I have a ”mental nose”, and I bet all the readers of this blog have one. I can remember smells, and imagine smells, and yes, sometimes they pop up. But I must say, it is a mixed blessing! February 11, 2014 at 7:28am Reply

    • Courtney: Hi Cornelia, yes it’s funny how smells can seem to pop up out of nowhere! When do you find it a mixed blessing? February 11, 2014 at 8:02am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: When I have an association with a very unpleasant smell. (”smell” in general, not just perfume). Everything can be a trigger: a colour, a picture, a sound, you name it. February 11, 2014 at 8:41am Reply

    • mysterious_scent: Your use of “bodily nose” and “mental nose” is very true from a neuroscience point of view. Our nose, eye, taste buds, touch sensor are our sensory inputs organs. There is a group of dedicated brain parts to process each sensory. Olfactory input is relatively “primitive” compare to vision, which is highly developed in human brain. Yes, we have a bodily nose, bodily eyes and a mental nose, mental eyes February 12, 2014 at 5:34am Reply

  • Mindfulsmells: I’ve spent many years considering smell and Buddhist practice. The irony of mindfulness in the context of smelling a perfume is that it’s a practice of *non-attachment* i.e., not getting caught up in a sensation or image. While sitting makes us far more aware of sensations, thoughts, images, it is, at the same time, an opportunity to detach from the associations, narratives or labels that those thoughts and sensations trigger. For many of us, including myself, perfume – though an obvious ‘memory’ trigger, is also an expression of the cultural materialism of smell. Buddhist practice attracts me because of its central tenets of non-materiality and imperfection. For me, the greatest sensory insight (or prajna – clear seeing) that has come from my own practice is recognizing the wisdom and complexity of ALL smells, not just the ‘pretty’ ones we’re taught to enjoy and link to our lived experience. While perfume is a delightful part of sensory experience it is also important to be mindful of the fact that it is also a highly instrumental and material appropriation of smell. Finally, I am curious to know what it means, ethically, to wear fragrance in a sangha, where others are also meditating and expose those persons to a sensory imposition (which is just as powerful as turning on a ghetto blaster and filling the room with music)? February 11, 2014 at 7:29am Reply

    • Deborah: She answered your question already: “I wasn’t wearing perfume because of the no-scent policy.” February 11, 2014 at 7:45am Reply

      • Mindfulsmells: Thanks Deborah – I saw that. I meant in general. In general, what does it mean to go into a Sangha with perfume. While I am not actually a fan of scent free policies I respect their logic in certain contexts. February 11, 2014 at 7:52am Reply

        • Courtney: Yes, the center I was at has a policy about scented products. I can respect the idea that smells can be distracting (I’m sensitive to people who wear really heavy perfume in a confined space). But to those of us who see fragrance as part of our personal expression, it can feel like being asked not to wear bright colors or jewelry. Of course, the physical reality of smells is that they can’t be “shut out” by people next to you, so it is more like the music analogy you made. I find that I can wear fragrance “quietly” so people around me don’t smell it, but that’s a subtlety that wouldn’t make it into the policies!

          Your question about the place of smell in Buddhism is really interesting, and I haven’t fully thought about it. Smelling what’s around you can be part of being present in the moment, but I agree that like other sensory input, smells are loaded with cultural associations and they certainly provoke a lot of attachment and resistance. February 11, 2014 at 8:17am Reply

          • Ariadne: Unless your nose is on the “off position” for some reason you can’t escape smelling things…. even in a scent free yoga/meditation class. You will smell the other people’s bodies in the class and even the carpet on the floor. As others have posted even these odors become interesting and not to be disdained. February 12, 2014 at 5:53pm Reply

  • Deborah: Good morning everyone! Courtney, thank you for an excellent article. Our mind does amazing things as we mediate. One time I smelled my late grandmama’s rose powder and it made me full of joy because it felt like she was there ready to give me a hug. I was wearing nothing scented at all when it happened and I was alone in my room. February 11, 2014 at 7:47am Reply

    • Courtney: Thanks Deborah! That’s a wonderful story. It’s amazing that the mind can produce something so vivid from the past. February 11, 2014 at 8:22am Reply

  • Connie: I can imagine smells very well, and, more recently, I’ve had a few scent hallucinations of certain fragrances, which has been really cool. As though I were actually smelling them. February 11, 2014 at 8:21am Reply

    • Courtney: That is very cool! You know, I’ve read about people hallucinating bad smells because of some kind of disease or brain injury (phantosmia), but obviously a lot of people have these more pleasant and temporary experiences too. February 11, 2014 at 9:42am Reply

  • Anne of Green Gables: Thank you for this fascinating article, Courtney. This was one of the questions I had for a long time, whether proferssional perfumers can imagine smells that they’ve never smelled before just by looking at the formulas. I still have difficulty imagining smells from scratch but I find that sometimes I can smell them in my head when I’m reading vivid descriptions of scents.

    I’m much better at conjuring up smells I know well. I had a very similar experience as you. One day, I suddenly started smelling a perfume (this was involuntary, too bad I can’t remember which perfume it was) and I was worried that I might be hallucinating. It lingered for at least an hour and it was the strangest experience ever!

    Recently, I also started thinking about music in terms of scents and perfumes. Last night, I was lying on my back, listening to Ravel’s Bolero and I started imagining a perfume which has repetitive sequence of notes (like a clock reaction in chemistry) but getting stronger with time.

    In my opinion, the ability to remember or imagine smells can be improved with practice. Of course, like other talents, some people will be naturally better than the others but I think the more you use that part of the brain, the better you’ll get. February 11, 2014 at 8:47am Reply

    • Courtney: I’d also like to know more about what perfumers can or can’t imagine when they’re looking at a formula or thinking about putting certain components together.

      I love the idea of a perfume version of Bolero! Most perfumes have a certain “story line” because of how the different ingredients evaporate on skin, so a crescendo that ends with a bang would be quite an achievement. A few years ago I was at Christophe Laudamiel’s “scent opera” in New York, and I think you could do something like this with that technology, where the scents are piped through the air. February 11, 2014 at 9:55am Reply

      • Phyllis Iervello: There was once a Bolero perfume by Gabriela Sabatini, circa 1997. February 11, 2014 at 10:54am Reply

        • Anne of Green Gables: How interesting! Do you remember what it smelled like, Phyllis? Did it really match the music? February 11, 2014 at 3:33pm Reply

      • george: Thanks for that about the scent opera. I googled and found this great page of Christophe Laudamiel interviews. http://bigthink.com/users/christophelaudamiel February 11, 2014 at 11:57am Reply

        • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for the link, george. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know that aldehydes are also components of the body odour! February 11, 2014 at 3:26pm Reply

      • Anne of Green Gables: That must have been a really great multisensory experience! I wish I could have been there too. February 11, 2014 at 3:14pm Reply

        • Noele: ‘Music in terms of scents and perfumes’ — what a great topic. It’s funny that you mentioned Ravel, because he’s the one classical musician that I have scent-ties to. Any time I listen to Miroirs or Une Barque Sur L’Ocean I’m inevitably in the mood to wear a sea-themed perfume, like Christopher Brosius’ ‘Mr Hulot’s Holiday’ or Heeley’s ‘Sel Marin’. Maybe even Hermes ‘Jardin Sur Le Nil’ – there’s an impressionistic, sheer, watery feeling to that perfume – all words easily applied to some of Ravel’s music as well. February 12, 2014 at 2:16pm Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: Hi Noele, I agree with you on Ravel. Not just Jeux d’eau but many of his piano compositions definitely sound watery and sheer as you said. I find Debussy’s music also fragrant and colourful. Many of JCE’s creations remind me of Debussy’s music. I’m curious to smell Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Sel Marin. Have you also tried Hermes Epice Marine? It’s a sea breeze in a bottle and I love it! February 13, 2014 at 7:22am Reply

        • Courtney: The scent opera was really interesting. But I realized I’m not used to smelling things continuously in time like I’d listen to music. I left with a headache! February 12, 2014 at 11:47pm Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: I can only imagine how exhausting that must have been! February 13, 2014 at 7:24am Reply

  • FeralJasmine: In general I am only mediocre at conjuring up perfumes mentally, but there are some natural scents that I can bring up with great accuracy and that I use in difficult or frightening times. The scents of newly opened gardenias, sweet olive, wisteria, pink hyacinths (as they bloom in spring, with the scent of fresh cool earth lingering underneath,) and Stargazer lilies are among the “olfactory hallucinations” that I can summon up at will. And what a pleasure they are, too. February 11, 2014 at 9:22am Reply

    • Courtney: That’s a great use of the imagination — instead of going to a “happy place,” you have your happy smells. I suppose if I had a smell like that it would be walking in a forest Ponderosa pines, which have bark that smells like vanilla. Very comforting. February 11, 2014 at 11:29am Reply

  • Iodine: Interesting article! It happens to me lately to wake up smelling a fragrance of my collection and I interpret it as a clue to what I’ll be wearing later! I sometimes dream fragrances- real ones or of my own invention 🙂 February 11, 2014 at 9:40am Reply

    • Courtney: A perfect way to pick out your fragrance for the day! I have occasionally had perfume dreams too. February 11, 2014 at 11:32am Reply

  • Sandra: I really enjoyed your article.
    The power to scent is so strong. Just think of the aromatherapy that has been used for ages. Obviously scent plays a vital role in our over all well being, and can also alarm you. The smell of something sour or bitter-you don’t want to eat it.

    I lost my father unexpectedly this year, and during my meditation practice I was sitting listening to Medicine Buddha chants and visualizing my Dad. All of the sudden the smell of tobacco and stale cigarettes filled my nose-this is what he smelled like. It filled me with memories and made me cry a lot.

    Hope this isn’t to personal what I am sharing!

    Also I associate meditation and the smell of nag champa, when its not even burning and I am trying to meditate the smell fills my nose. February 11, 2014 at 9:48am Reply

    • Courtney: Thanks for sharing this powerful memory, Sandra. I’m sorry for your loss. I think we all have associations between smells and our loved ones that are very profound.

      I like the idea of using the memory of incense as part of your meditation…the center I was at was “smell free” but obviously a lot of mediation traditions use the smell of incense as part of the experience. February 11, 2014 at 11:42am Reply

  • Jillie: What a fascinating read, Courtney. I would love to know if everybody can imagine smells even if they are not interested in perfume! No doubt at all that with encouragement and practice this skill dvelops, but maybe that part of the brain has to exist in the first place, and perhaps not everyone is blessed with it? Such an interesting subject.

    Sometimes I feel that I have “imagined” a favourite scent so hard that I almost don’t need to wear it. And this is a great thing if it is a long lost creation which I don’t possess in the flesh any more! February 11, 2014 at 11:19am Reply

  • nikki: Hello Courtney!

    Such an enjoyable and erudite post! Thank you! February 11, 2014 at 11:29am Reply

    • Courtney: Thank you Nikki! February 11, 2014 at 2:37pm Reply

  • maja: Lovely article! I (think) I can literally smell a lot of situation from books and theatre. My friends were laughing at me once when I said: Great idea to disperse the smell of rose from the stage! after we watched Little Prince together in theatre. Nobody else smelled anything while I was absolutely sure I had smelled the rose oil. And I am still able to mentally smell the scent of my grandma’s kitchen in the morning – fresh ground coffee, raw milk on the wood-burning stove and my grandfather’s honey.
    Obviously, if as a teenager you read something like We Children of Bahnhof Zoo, you wish you had less ability to smell things in your mind. 🙂 February 11, 2014 at 11:52am Reply

    • Courtney: maja, it sounds like you are quite gifted in imagining smells! I love your roses story.

      By the way, I had to Google “We Children of Bahnhof Zoo” – wow! I could see that making quite the impression on a teenager. February 11, 2014 at 2:53pm Reply

      • maja: It was quite a stinky book as far as mental smelling is concerned. 🙂 February 11, 2014 at 6:03pm Reply

  • rainboweyes: I love conjuring up visions of scents – real ones – like the favourite ones from my collection – and those only existing in my imagination. Sometimes I have an idea of an imaginary scent that I would love to wear but of course I have absolutely no clue what ingredients I would need to create it.
    And actually I play the scent game every night before I fall asleep. I try to recall the smell of all my scents and try to match them with next day’s outfit… February 11, 2014 at 12:52pm Reply

    • Courtney: I can’t say I have the forethought to plan out my outfits very often, but I do run through fragrances in my mind to figure out which one is right for that day. I’ve noticed that certain perfumes stick in my mind more than others — which is part of what makes them favorites. February 11, 2014 at 4:46pm Reply

  • Lilly: Hello Courtney,
    I was really interested in your article. I’m only a couple of years into my perfume obsession, and it started when I began looking for the perfume my aunt wore for years when I was a child. I believe it’s was Arpège but am not 100 percent sure because, of course, it was a very different scent back then. Anyway, all I have to do is think back to a specific moment, and I can imagine this long lost scent in all it’s complexity.

    I would also like to describe a different but interesting experience that took place a few months ago. I was at an art exhibit and looking at a painting – it was early 20th century French depicting several ladies sitting in a garden. I must have been in some kind of meditative trance as I contemplated it because suddenly I got a whiff of the l’Heure Bleue I was wearing and I immediately thought “wow, this is so modern”. Believe me, that is not how I would ever describe l’Heure Bleue with my rational mind, but it’s as though there were no barriers between me and what those ladies in the painting would have thought! February 11, 2014 at 2:41pm Reply

  • Courtney: Hi Lilly, so the painting put you in a mindset to understand the perfume in a new way? That’s very cool! February 11, 2014 at 4:48pm Reply

  • Alyssa: There are certain scents that I can always remember. Anytime I’m in a coffee shop or smell coffee, I immediately associate a fragrance called Cool Water to accompany the coffee. My ex boyfriend used to always wear that and drink coffee throughout the whole day. So now, I can’t smell coffee without smelling Cool Water.

    Another fragrance I can randomly smell just by thinking about it is one called Hamptons by Bond No 9. It’s a perfume my grandmother would always wear so whenever I miss her and think of her, I randomly start to smell Hamptons! It’s crazy how our minds can bring up smells without conscious thought! February 11, 2014 at 5:23pm Reply

    • Courtney: That is interesting Alyssa! It makes sense that smells come to mind as we associate them with memories, good or bad. I hope the memories of the ex don’t interfere with you enjoying coffee :). February 12, 2014 at 8:49am Reply

  • Laurels: Some perfumes leave more vivid memories than others. The reason I purchased my last bottle was because I kept thinking of the way it smelled even when I was trying other things. And somewhat like maja, I sometimes smell things that aren’t there when I am very involved in a movie or television show. (Scenes depicting vomiting are extremely unpleasant.) February 12, 2014 at 1:27am Reply

    • Courtney: Yes, I think a good test of how much you like a fragrance is whether you can remember it when you’re not wearing it.

      I personally haven’t had the experience of smelling things I see on TV or on stage, but I’m really intrigued that some people do. February 12, 2014 at 8:52am Reply

  • Karina: Fascinating read, thank you. I just tried conjuring scents up in my mind now and it is certainly an interesting exercise. I feel that I can remember a scent but only in a somewhat hollow form, the heart and life of the perfume isn’t there. Maybe with practice! I love the idea of thinking in perfume. February 12, 2014 at 7:30am Reply

    • Courtney: Thanks Karina. I know what you mean about it being a hollow form–almost like remembering the face of someone you don’t know very well. It’s easier with scents I wear all the time….and yes I’m sure it gets better with practice! February 12, 2014 at 9:03am Reply

  • Nancy A.: Hi Courtney,

    What a commentary — loved it because of its truth and the realization that we are not alone in our thought process. Fragrance in and of itself holds the longest-evoking memories and what happened for you (in my opinion) was a meditation. It’s not only the scent of perfumes but food also does it for me. The scent of food or a meal and when I smell certain food odors that also becomes my meditation! Thanks for the memories. February 12, 2014 at 4:49pm Reply

    • Courtney: Thanks Nancy, I’m glad this rang true for you! February 12, 2014 at 11:53pm Reply

  • Merlin: Several years into the hobby and I still struggle with this. Often what I remember is thoughts that I have had while sniffing or wearing a perfume. So certain concepts come to mind like ‘transparent’ or ‘rich’ and I feel like I have some idea of what it was like. Then I go smell the perfume again and think to myself – no! – its something else entirely. Yes, it is ‘transparent’ or ‘rich’ but my mind was not at all reflecting the exact character of the smell.

    Quite often I am relatively content with a certain rose perfume I have, but every time I actually duck my head into a real dark red rose, growing in a garden, I straight away realize that I haven’t smelled anything that even approximates that particular aroma. Casablanca lilies are different: I once realized some bouquet was full of C. lilies because it smelled just like a C.lilly fragrance I have! February 12, 2014 at 5:35pm Reply

    • Courtney: There are definitely certain flowers and other notes that I know better from perfumes than from their natural state!

      Interesting point about concepts coming up when you remember a scent. I do find that my impression of a fragrance can change over time, so it doesn’t always match what’s in my memory. February 13, 2014 at 12:02am Reply

      • Merlin: Aside from my not knowing how many things actually smell in their natural form – I also think that some scents are easier to capture than others. I wouldn’t be surprised if real red rose is a more complex scent than that given off by many other flowers. February 13, 2014 at 5:25am Reply

  • Tina: Hi!!
    I have always been able to imagine scents, smells, odours! I didnt thought that was uncommon! I have no problems imagine my perfumes, the faint scent from milk, a bag of mixed candy, fresh potatos, the scent from boiling rice, an old book, yes most i can think of! The scent is infact more vivid in my imagination than its in reality to me! I have some anosmia to scents unfortunly but some how they must reach my olfactory center and stay there as a memory! Often in the mornings i try in my mind go trogh my perfume wardrobe to find out what to wear this particular day, i imagine the scent and then when im on the run spraying the scent on me im disapointed because i dont pick up the scent as i imagined it, somedays i dont smell a thing and thats frustrating! Well, nobody can rob me from my memories! Disclaimer; one scent i ALWAYS pickup is Angel TM, also one of my favs thank god! Have a great weekend!! February 13, 2014 at 1:22pm Reply

  • Sylvie: I am a reader of this lovely site but have never commented -however this ties in to something i read recently, thought it might be of interest. It is about auditory hallucinations, but maybe they will be studying other senses as well.

    http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/blog/the-loom/ February 14, 2014 at 11:08am Reply

    • Courtney: Thanks for the link, Sylvie! It’s interesting to think about how imagining a sound or a scent is different from hallucinating it, when you have no control over it. February 14, 2014 at 5:52pm Reply

  • Nati: This is so funny, I started an obsession with perfumes recently and about three days ago I started feeling this fragrance out of nowhere and t was a memory! I could feel it perfectly and was nowhere near the bottle nor had applied it recently. It was No19 Chanel just channeling itself to me. And now I found this article!
    Very cool! November 14, 2014 at 1:01pm Reply

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