Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Conversations With Ella: Lessons in Smell (Part I)

You know how people have five senses and how sometimes if they don't have one, another one they have is better and makes up for it? Like a blind person that can hear better because they can't see? I think my nose has two senses. One sense smells things that are too strong or aren't really there and the other sense smells nothing. But there are things in between that I can smell very well.--Ella (8-years-old)
When I first had a conversation with Ella it was in the basement of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor. I was telling her about Pseudonymous Bosch's book, The Name of this Book is Secret, and how the sense of smell figures prominently in the children's action adventure series. She was sitting with her mother Jennifer who had a look on her face that was a combination of interest and concern. "We think Ella might have a problem with smell."

People who can't smell favor trigeminal sensations like the coolness of mint, the heat of cayenne, and the tingling of carbonation. They are also sensitive to the messages the trigeminal nerve sends relating the texture of food and don't like things that feel unidentifiable (i.e. casseroles) or are texturally dominant in a way that does not give them pleasure along with their ability to detect taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). Trigeminal sensations inspire emotion and memory with the same intensity that the sense of smell provides, so likes and dislikes in this area are visceral for those with sensory processing disorders and/or anosmia. When I learned that texture was also an issue for Ella our conversation about smell began:

     "I bet you really like peppermint."
     "I do! How did you know that?"
     Her voice was sweetened with glee. I appeared to be a magician.
     "You might have anosmia and that means you have trouble smelling things, but that doesn't mean you can't taste things. You might even taste things better than people who can smell."
     "So what's wrong with my nose?"
The weight of feeling different than others is hard for adults to bear. In children it can poke holes in their self esteem as they are sensitive to how they are perceived by others. I felt my brain searching for an answer, iterating in clicks like a computer that has received a command to retrieve a file that doesn't exist. I have written journal articles and given speeches to scientists, marketers and consumers on the subject of smell and perfumery, but never explained anosmia to a child. I answered from instinct and the wisdom instilled in me by my father, who was never patronizing when discussing adult topics with me as a child:

     "Did you ever see an old fashioned light bulb, the kind with a string that you pull to turn the light on?
     "I think so."
     "You have something called an olfactory bulb inside your head, at the top of your nose. There are many strings that can turn it on when you smell something. Each string turns on a smell. You might have fewer strings, different strings or no strings. Does that make sense?"
     "I think so." She hesitated as she thought to herself. "So what else does that mean?"
     Her tone was authoritative and vulnerable. I reminded myself that she was only eight years old.
     "The most important thing for you to remember is that you were made this way and that means you are very special; it doesn't make you a bad person. If you learn more about the way you sense things you will understand what makes you special. Then it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or if they can understand it like you do. There's something else you should know. Someone you know and love has anosmia. Would you like to know who that is?"
     "Yes!  Who is it?"
     "Holly, your Sunday school teacher. Now you know there is someone who's a little bit like you."
     Ella said nothing. She just stood in front of me smiling. Looking at her was like staring at the sun.

In telling Ella about Holly's anosmia I was sharing something that few members at church knew, except for the staff. The words left my mouth of their own volition, but in retrospect it was compassion that prompted their escape. I saw Ella run up to Holly and hug her before we had our private chat about smell. It was the strongest affirmative example I could think of and was propelled by an instinct to protect her from feeling badly about herself. A lump formed in my throat. I took a sip of water to distract myself from the salt of withheld tears.

There's a saying in Buddhism; "When the student is ready the teacher will come." I've met with Ella on several occasions. The more we speak about smell clearer my role has become; I am both catalyst and student. Conversations with Ella teach me why I continue to find joy in perfumery and the science of olfaction. This is the first in a series of conversations about smell with Ella that will be featured on Glass Petal Smoke. I think you'll find she has some interesting things to teach us all.

First Lesson from Ella:

It's really how you look at difference that makes the difference. One can look at two roses, a yellow one and a red one, and favor one over the other for its color or perfume. It doesn't make either of them "less than" a rose. That kind of thinking is the way we exert our desire to have the world conform to our likes, dislikes and associated comfort levels. If you look at the condition of the world today you can see this in a lot of places; it is at the root of most social conflict.

In fragrance training the first thing we have to conquer is ourselves. First there is the Proustian response to aroma, the autobiographical memories, etc. Then there arises the need to understand the essence of what we smell, exit the realm of subjectivity and let the raw material speak to us. This is what I find so fascinating about smelling in perfumery. It has a way of heightening one's intuition, which cannot coexist with judgment. That is the compassion in smell. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I continue to be drawn to it. 


A big thank you goes out to Ella's parents, Jennifer and Noah, for allowing me to share Ella's story. Ella's little brother Miles has been very helpful and patient as we work together to explore the sense of smell and taste with Ella. P.S. Miles asks great questions and has a sophisticated palate for a five-year-old; he loves sushi.

Photo collage of Ella and Barrett smell quote (later shot outside The Rubin Museum, in NYC) by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.  

Photograph of Chocolate Chip Mint Ice Cream by TamDotCom via Creative Commons. Some rights reserved by the owner.

Image of mitral cells and olfactory bulb tissue by Sonya Giridhar via Carnegie Mellon.

Collage of artichoke flower and sensory pastel drawing from Spicelines and Two Shoes in Texas, respectively. 

Photo of lavender text overlaid with the image of a rose by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.