Learning Scents (or Words) : A Few Tips

Recently I was making a new series of videos on learning languages, and as I was jotting down notes on learning words, I realized that for my studies I use the same memorizing techniques that I had used to learn ingredients in perfumery school. I wonder if my language learning didn’t accelerate during my training. After all, memorizing something intangible like a scent is even harder than memorizing a new word. Either way, I would like to share my tips on retaining smells in your memory, and you can see how you can apply these techniques to memorizing anything else.

If you wish to have a set of oils or spices ready, I recommend starting with no more 3. It might seem like very little, but if you learn to memorize those three scents and learn to pick them out in a blend, you can expand your exercises to a much greater number. Polish your technique with a few scents at a time.

For instance, my recommended smells for learning would be the following three: lemon (you can use the real fruit by scratching the peel), clove (you can use spices that you have at that time), and vanilla (you can use extract). You’re likely to have them already, and they’re used a lot in perfumery. Just because they’re familiar, however, don’t assume that you know all of their facets.

I emphasize the parallels with language studies to help you find your own connections. I’m sure all of you have pursuits that require memorization, so you can rely on the same techniques for learning aromas. Your techniques might differ from mine, but it doesn’t matter as long as they are effective.

Imagination

Sit down comfortably; don’t allow anything to bother you. You should be able to concentrate on smelling well. Close your eyes and inhale the first scent. What does it evoke? Think of colors, shapes, other scents, places, your previous experiences with this scent. Take a break. Repeat, trying to smell for as many associations as possible. Put it down; write down your impressions.

Repeat with the second and third scents. Take a break and repeat the whole exercise again. If you have found more notes, facets or associations, add them to your notes.

Consistency

Select your three scents and smell them every day for at least one week. It’s identical to learning words, and I apply the same technique in my language studies. I make lists of new words and phrases, learn them and review them every day for one week. After that, I start reviewing them twice a week, then once a week, and then hopefully they become part of my vocabulary.

Schedule

Related to consistency is learning how to schedule your exercises. I recommend smelling in the morning before your nose and your mind become overwhelmed with other things. You can prepare your oils/spices the night before and leave them in a conspicuous place to remind yourself to smell them.

The first time you smell them, it will take you longer, 30 minutes or so. Smelling on the subsequent days should take only a few minutes. If you find new facets or associations, do write them down.

I likewise do all of my language learning, at least, the word learning, in the morning. That way it’s done, and I start my day with a pleasant feeling of something already having been accomplished.

Random Recall

Throughout the day, ask yourself what does a lemon smell like? Try to imagine its scent in your mind, using your notes. Imagine its sharpness, brightness, acidity. Imagine biting into a piece of lemon. Do the same thing for the rest of the aromas you’ve been learning.

When I go for my run, I like to test myself by counting in Albanian, for instance, or imagining a dialogue in Turkish, or simply recalling the new words I learned that morning. Such random tests help to etch new information in memory.

Enjoyment

Remember that you’re doing something enjoyable–something good for your brain–and see your exercises not as a chore but as a pleasure. Anticipate the excitement of learning something new from a fruit as common as a lemon! Look forward to your mornings of aromas. The goal is to learn as well as to experience the pure sense of delight that discovery and knowledge bring.

If you want to share your smelling notes with me, I’m always happy to take a look and I’m sure others here will find them inspiring.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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19 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    Thank you for those valuable tips on learning and describing scents.

    A few weeks ago, my father and I were talking about languages, and I mentioned that you (“the Ukrainian lady who writes the perfume blog that I read”) were able to speak 17 languages. He immediately expressed disbelief, saying that nobody could become fluent in that many languages. I had mentioned that Indonesian was one of them, and he said that European people tend to find it very difficult to pronounce Indonesian. I replied that maybe you were just significantly more skilled with languages than most people (which is what I think is the case). I wish that you could make a video that I could show him (or several videos) of you speaking each of the 17 languages.

    Oh ye of little faith!

    Just an idea!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline July 17, 2020 at 7:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Indonesian is not difficult at all. It has all of the sounds that the other European languages do. It has its own difficulties, but the pronunciation is not one of them. July 17, 2020 at 8:26am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Take that, Dad!

        I’ll break it to him gently… July 17, 2020 at 8:38am Reply

        • Joyce: Hi Tourmaline 😊 hope your dad takes the news well.

          Thanks again Victoria for this wonderfully informative article – one of the many things I love about your blog, is it’s diverse range of topics!

          On languages, I find that it’s easiest to learn by following through your favourite topics. Although it may mean you have a decent range of vocabs in cooking spices and perfumes like me, but nothing practical like how to get a car registered.

          We are making risotto tonight, so I will do a mini smelling lesson of celery, shallots and garlic! July 17, 2020 at 11:39pm Reply

          • Tourmaline: Hi there, Joyce,

            I’m sure Dad will take it graciously!

            You’re right that BdJ has a wonderful variety of topics.

            Have a great day! July 17, 2020 at 11:50pm Reply

          • Victoria: I agree with you. The bulk of my “language learning” is not the classroom study per se, but doing things that I enjoy doing–reading, watching videos about travel, food, art, cooking, browsing through cookbooks, etc. I’m practicing my Turkish these days by reading Madonna in a Fur Coat (Kürk Mantolu Madonna by Sabahattin Ali), watching food videos on Refika’nın Mutfağı and chatting with the owners of a local fruit-and-vegetable shop, who are from Ankara. I do more formal language work, since Turkish grammar is quite intricate, but the best way to learn is to make the language part of one’s environment.
            I find the cooking vocabulary quite diverse and versatile–a great way to learn a wide range of verbs, prepositions, etc. And when one travels, it’s far more useful than knowing how to register one’s car. 🙂 July 18, 2020 at 8:38am Reply

  • Annie: Thank you for writing down it step by step. I have everything you mention at home. I’ll try this exercise starting this weekend. July 17, 2020 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re welcome! It’s always interesting to go through this exercise, even for someone who’s well-familiar with the scents I mentioned. You really find something new in them each time you smell them. Enjoy it! July 17, 2020 at 10:08am Reply

      • Deanna: Hello Victoria! How I love your blog, there’s always a treat in store like this one.
        I just wanted to ask, if someone who thinks they have a poor sense of smell (not me!) can improve by practising these exercises? In other words is smell a sense that can be enlarged and refined like our other senses by anyone? Or are there some people who really have a poor sense of smell, it being a physical thing like having poor eye sight? July 17, 2020 at 1:58pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it certainly can! The more you exercise your sense of smell, the better you become at it.
          As I’ve seen through my work, smelling exercises can even help to overcome forms of anosmia (inability to smell). Of course, those are extreme cases, but it goes to show that everyone can benefit from smelling more and smelling consciously. Plus, it’s so enjoyable! July 17, 2020 at 2:34pm Reply

          • Deanna: Glad to have learnt that!
            Thank you. July 17, 2020 at 2:39pm Reply

            • Victoria: Also, our sense of smell diminishes with age, so it’s a good idea to do something to exercise it. Of course, if one cooks a lot, gardens or engages in any activities that involve the sense of smell, this is not an issue–one’s nose gets plenty of use. 🙂 July 18, 2020 at 8:23am Reply

  • Saadet: Hi Victoria, thank you for this post..I really needed a step by step guide to improve my sense of smell which I think will take some work. My sister who isn’t as crazy as me about perfumes, can identify different notes better than I do, I feel so jealous 🙂
    Sevgiler ve selamlar.. July 17, 2020 at 6:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Kolay gelsin, başarılar!
      Smelling all of these scents in isolation will help you being able to identify them easily in a blend. Even starting with something like lemon and clove would be good–they are used often in perfumery. July 18, 2020 at 8:30am Reply

  • Kat: I love your videos and although I haven’t made a conscious effort to train my sense of smell the way you describe I noticed that my brain all of a sudden starts to makes sometimes quite hilarious comments on scents. For example while draining cooked rice: this smells like wet dog. Or the night air during hay season: smells like my cat’s curly belly fur (this one at least has some logic as my cat loved to sleep in fresh hay) – LOL! July 18, 2020 at 9:34am Reply

    • Victoria: This means that you have a big olfactory vocabulary and can make diverse associations. Excellent! July 19, 2020 at 7:43am Reply

  • luci: That are very good tips in learning new languages and inearning scent. What make you interested in Indonesian language? I am from Indonesia and currently learning English. Even though many have said English is not hard to master, it took me 10 years and still not be able to hold a decent conversation. I still need a lot of practice is speaking skills. I love this blog as it shares one of my passion, aroma, fragrance. It also shares beauty tips and cooking. It makes my day reading your blog. Thank you Victoria. July 20, 2020 at 1:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you found them helpful, thank you very much.
      English is a difficult language, especially if your native language is not from the same group. Its spelling and pronunciation alone are hard, not to mention the grammar. So, just continue practicing.

      Saya bekerja sebagai penerjemah. July 20, 2020 at 3:36am Reply

  • Lindsey Davis: This is such an interesting post to read especially when you love wearing perfume. I have learned a lot from this article. Thanks! July 23, 2020 at 3:24am Reply

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