Posts Tagged ‘science’

When I wrote Whiff, I only had my experiences with smell to draw on.  Jim was a fantasy character in my mind.  Jim’s heightened sense of smell seems beyond what is humanly possible.  He describes smell of dying like this:

It is the subtlest of odors, death—not unlike the smell from when one falls from lucidness into the first moments of dreaming—but perhaps a touch sweeter.

He describes Marie like this:

rain on early spring birch leaves, the filament of an orchid, and the slightest hint of cardamom

To be honest, I don’t even know if the filament of an orchid has a scent. In fact, I chose it because to smell it, you’d have to get passed the predominant smell of an orchid.   I wanted to convey that Jim is a savant of the highest order;  capable of detecting beauty beyond the reach of a normal person, or perhaps any person at all.  But maybe Jim is less of a fantasy than I originally thought.  It is likely that Jim is a hyperosmiac.  Wikipedia defines

Hyperosmia is an increased olfactory acuity (heightened sense of smell), usually caused by a lower threshold for odor. This perceptual disorder arises when there is an abnormally increased signal at any point between the olfactory receptors and the olfactory cortex.

This condition that Jim has is real science.  He was likely born with this condition, and it fits even better than I’d planned.  There’s neurology involved here.

What Is that Smell by Daniel J. Cameron, MD, MPH

Research studies examining impaired or heightened sense of smell have been focused primarily on patients suffering from neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Jim also seems to be on the autism spectrum.  His inability to recognize social cues and intense discomfort with communicating with the people around him would put him into the category of Asperger’s which is very much a neurological disorder.  It fits so beautifully and scientifically that Jim might have a heightened sense of smell and an obsessiveness associated with that of an autistic.

But it’s more than just a heightened sense of smell.  Jim is a chronic nostalgiac.  From an early age, his strong association with pleasure and smell conditioned him to have a dependency on smell in order to experience pleasure in the present .  It’s not enough to smell something that you’ve smelled before, there must be conditioning in order to have the kinds of responses Jim has.

How Smell Works by Sarah Dowdey

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the poolor lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

Although he’s a product of my imagination, there could be a real Jim Bronson out there.  But don’t just wait to find him.  Read about him in Whiff:   A Novella

barneswilson_pr2I’ve been asked if my book Whiff is autobiographical.  The lead character, Jim Bronson, is a man whose primary way of experiencing the world is through scent.  He tries to resurrect moments, places, and people in his life by “collecting” smells.  It’s kind of creepy on the face, and so I suspect people wonder if I’m creepy in that way as well!

I want to assure you that I am not Jim Bronson!  But I will say that it is based on an experience I had as a child.  When I was four, we moved from Austin, Texas to Lonoke, Arkansas.  On the way out of town, my mother took my twin and I to the post office for a change of address.  While we waited, there was a little girl there.  I became smitten with her in my own little four-year-old way!  At some point after we arrived in Lonoke, we stopped at the post office again.  When we got to the counter, the smell was identical to the one in Texas.  I got a rush of butterflies in my stomach.  For awhile, every time we went, I got the same feelings.  Even at four years old, I was a lovesick romantic!

Since then, I’ve been very aware of smell in my environment and the way it affects me;  the memories they invoke.

In How Smell Works,Sarah Dowdy writes

A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

After my grandfather’s funeral, we gathered at my aunt’s house for food and comfort.  It was a house that my grandmother had never entered.  As I walked passed the stairs, I got a whiff of something so familiar.  It was my grandmother’s scent.  Chanel #5, Spearmint, cigarette, lipstick, and her own unique scent signature.  I followed it up the stairs half expecting to see a ghost.  Then it disappeared.  I knew is was her.  I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was her.  She was so present.  For a moment, she was resurrected.

Our olfactory memory is so powerful, the most powerful, that something that is gone or far away can be brought back into being in our minds.  Smell is as intimate a contact we can have with a person, place, time, or thing.  It’s like a time machine.  We are transported immediately when we smell that recipe for cookies that mother used to make.  We smell peanuts and beer and we’re at the ballgame with our grandfather.  We smell the clothes of someone who is not in our lives at the moment or forever and we can feel them close.  We smell fur tree, scotch tape, wrapping paper, wood burning fire, clove, orange, newspaper, coffee and we are seven again on Christmas morning.


So, no I’m not Jim Bronson, but we can all relate to this character in some way.  We’ve all collected smells.  We comfort ourselves with the fragrances that mean something to us.  The difference for Jim, though, is that it his way of life.  He lives in a fog of nostalgia that keeps him from having meaningful relationships in the present day, and nostalgia is a kind of grief.  I’ve done it before.  I’ve tried to recreate a moment with aroma.  It works in a sense, but there really is no resurrecting a moment.  So treasure the moments you have.