Proust’s Big, Long Nose

by Chikashi

Calla Lily by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1984

It seems odd that, as a subject matter, olfactory memory only started to attract broad interest in cognitive psychology less than 40 years ago.  We have had a sense of smell for a lot longer than that.  What is likely to be the oldest form of message is fundamental to the survival of animal species and is received through olfaction.  The term ‘pheromone’ may have been coined only half a century ago, but the substance existed since time immemorial.  However, I suppose that people were too busy trying to get their heads round how we process visual and verbal information.   

There was a Seinfeld episode in which Kramer conceived an eau de cologne that smells like the ocean.  Predictably, there were no takers to develop and commercialise the product concept.  Of course, there is virtually no chance that it would be commercially viable, but the underlying idea is not as ridiculous as it sounds.  I think that many people have had moments, usually of the delightful sort, when there was an undeniable desire to capture the ambient smell in a bottle, not because of the smell per se but because of the event, location or person associated with it, like the scent of bread baking in the oven.  An overpowering eau de parfum can cause a headache if it is not associated with any experience, but it can cause a head rush if it evokes a positive memory.

One evening I got rather tight after consuming quite a bit of saké, and a few other elixirs.  More than 20 years on, I still cannot even smell saké, never mind actually drinking it.  If olfactory memory is not Proustian, then I don’t know what is.