Monday, June 10, 2013

You are Proust: The Case for Developing Your Olfactory Mind

The proverbial Proustian moment isn’t limited to the nostalgic reveries of a madeleine loving protagonist. Flashes of autobiographical memory inspired by taste and smell reflect a rich life-affirming aspect of human experience. These moments make for worshipful excerpts in literature because the sense of smell and its handmaiden flavor are not easy to describe. Real life encounters with Proustian moments are not only possible, they are more likely to occur if you take the time to develop your olfactory mind. We can't keep talking about Proust; he's dead, the madeleine he ate is lost to an ever-changing ecosystem, and the pastry described in In Search of Lost Time may have been a piece of dry toast

Autobiographical memory inspired by taste and smell reflects an extended pattern of experience that builds on itself. It is shares the characteristics of replicating patterns of self-similarity one finds in fractal images; parts of the whole appear the same from near or far (consider time as a continuum and you get the picture). Flashbacks inspired by taste and smell enter a person's consciousness when something in the present triggers a foundational memory. In this space, past and present merge altering time as we know it. This produces the closest approximation to time travel we can experience without pharmacopoeia or strict adherence to a spiritual lifestyle.

Memories inspired by taste and smell are exceedingly powerful when they reference childhood experience. Dr. Maria Larsson found that children ages 8-10 form foundational olfactory impressions that last a lifetime. I've observed these types of olfactory memories being made in classroom settings at 826Michigan where I teach a series of Smell and Tell classes designed to improve expository writing skills. Discovery shapes this period of childhood development as it is a time when kids delight in self awareness, as well as differentiation from parents and younger siblings. They are less influenced by peer pressure than their tween counterparts, who are more concerned with fitting in and defining themselves by group affiliation. 

Smell is the passport to one's "self" enriched by a grounded sense of identity against the canvas of sensory experience. This is beautifully articulated by Jane Miller in the essay "Midnights." Miller focuses on the transporting effect of encountering the "new" with an emphasis on cultivating a state of presence that is integral to the transformative experience associated with travel:
"Wherever the traveler goes in a quest for beauty and knowledge, if the place responds like a peacock displaying its iridescence, we have the stuff legends are made of. Imagery explodes and creates a derangement of the senses. Those who have already gone and returned no longer remember it that way, or remember the place fondly or inexactly. But during the ritual visit itself, the unfamiliar and disoriented prevail, requiring that we notice things in their entirety, which we must do to "get anywhere" in the confrontation with the new. To see a thing entire is to see its other-worldliness, to see the stripes, fangs and the sausage-like intestines, working through the analogical possibilities to experience it ("it" is, by now, a monstrous thing).
Having given it our full attention, a meditation, what follows is often revelatory. The spirit of a place, a person, or a thing exchanges freely with the stranger's spirit..."                                                              Miller, Jane. "Midnights." Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, 236, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2002.

Can Proustian moments be nurtured early in life? Cultivating an olfactory mind when receptivity is high provides an excellent springboard for this type of thinking. Children experience a multitude of “new” things because they are open to new experiences by virtue of their years. That feeds their sense of wonder, but there is a caveat; attachment to likes and dislikes must be surmounted to make room for an evaluative point of view that allows a person to see something in its entirety. There are no wrong answers when it comes to how a person experiences smell and taste. Evaluation is shaped by experience, culture, and emotion which are unique to each individual. The relief and "ah-ha" moment understanding provides to children and adults in a classroom setting encourages creativity and is subtly profound.

Proustian moments can be nurtured in adulthood despite the fact that smell loss is part of the aging process. Scientists have discovered that parts of the brain related to olfaction in perfumers are more highly developed; even in those who are 40+, (a time when the sense of smell starts to decline as part of the aging cycle). If you are light years from childhood there is no time like the present to exercise your olfactory mind. You may be surrounded by opportunities for a Proustian moment and not even know it. Glass Petal Smoke suggests that you follow these simple tips to get you started on your journey, with or without the mythical madeleine: 
  • Experience something new every day and keep a written list of what you discover.
  • Explore local foodways and seek out new flavors.
  • Make a conscious effort to shift environments during the day as a variety of smellscapes outside your window/cubicle shape the context of sensory experience and provide reference points for new memories.
  • Travel to places you have never visited before and indulge all of your senses.
  • Smell everything you can; flowers, fruits, the ingredients you use to cook/bake, etc.
  • Buy a good book about essential oils and curate a collection of favorites that you can smell repeatedly over time. 
  • Explore mindfulness practice in your spiritual tradition and get in touch with being present.
The Glass Petal Smoke "Sensory Questionnaire" is a tool you can use to get inside your olfactory mind. Learn how here

Explore ways that you can define a smell on this WikiHow.

*How important is childhood when it comes to smell and autobiographical memory?  Read "Smell Your Way Back to Childhood,by Dr. Maria Larsson and find out. Dr. Johan Willander’s "Autobiographical Odor Memory" digs deep on the subject across ages.

"Memories" illustration by Greg Abbott. Used with permission. You can visit Greg Abbott's online shop. Very cool stuff here. 

Rino is a little girl who eats dishes from around the world. Her parents have nurtured her olfactory mind beyond the madeleine, though the picture of her eating one is quite charming. Rino's YouTube channel was featured in a story in The Huffington Post. Image rights revert back to Rino and her family.

We lose our sense of smell as we age. It begins at age 40 and can increase dramatically once your reach 65. Developing your olfactory mind by practicing smell calisthenics is a good idea if you plan on enjoying your "golden" years.