The Comforting Sense of Smell

coffeeLast month’s blog was seen as being more serious than usual. My excellent boss delivered that view in an observant rather than judgmental way but still it struck home.

I reflected and wondered if perhaps I was finding it harder to be light-hearted in view of what’s happening around the world. It’s been a trying time, hasn’t it?

I look to conjure up reasons to be cheerful, as Ian Dury so cleverly did when he wrote his song way back in 1979. I’m a little stuck. The future was looking so rosy then. I think it unravelled for some about 2016, the year that was Brexit. I’m not picking a side here, just remembering the upheavals the referendum caused and the collective fury that, like Topsy, just grew and grew.

The situation seemed unresolved; we lost two PMs over it until the cheerful joker Boris Johnson appeared on the horizon as our PM promising he’d keep us laughing. We fell for it (he was helped a little by the Opposition’s leader at the time) and Johnson won a landslide victory promising us all would be better. We had such hope.

That was in December 2019 and then came March 2020 and Covid-19. That was catastrophic. The less said about that, the better. A two-year loss of life and experience that we won’t get back. Hope ebbed.

Once again, we took a deep breath, picked ourselves up and returned to day-to-day life. Some of us even bucked the trend and went back into offices.

And then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that was too close and too painful to ignore and, even if you took no notice of media reports, it was unavoidable. It hit all of us personally in the pockets through the hikes in energy and food prices. We could not pretend.

Once again, we adapted. We did what we could. Some of us generously hosting displaced Ukrainians who had lost their homes; others contributed to the cause financially and we took the financial hits on the chin. After all, we were much better off than those poor Ukrainians.

And now, since 7 October last year and the terrible Hamas attack on Israeli partygoers we’re looking at yet more desperate conflict where we seem powerless to help and no-one seems to see any way out. Put that like that, those reasons to be cheerful were seeming harder to find. But find them I must.

What to write? What to write? It was looking hard. There are no cheerful subjects at present. We’re in a dark period.

My luck turned while I was sifting aimlessly through the pages of a cheerless daily.

lavenderA headline in a story breathlessly claimed that breathing in Vicks Vaporub, could help in the treatment of depression. Who wouldn’t be tempted to read further? I did.

It wasn’t, of course, exactly like that. Some of us may not like the smell of Vicks and then we’d hardly feel happier inhaling that, even if our eucalyptus-filled breaths cleared our sinuses thoroughly.

The point of the article turned out to be that familiar and enjoyable smells can be a great source of comfort to those with depression. Now that’s a story.

Neuroscientist researchers recruited a (small) group of volunteers aged between 18 and 55 who have depression and exposed them to different smells contained in airtight jars. They were asked to close their eyes, take a whiff from each jar, identify the scent (not important if they couldn’t) and write down what memory the smell evoked.

It turns out the scents – including cumin powder, red wine, wax shoe polish, vanilla extract and ketchup – triggered all sorts of forgotten memories, some good, some not so good.

The conclusion of the study was that the treatment of depression could include the use of scent to help the patient create a happier state of mind for themselves.

It’s obvious really but not so obvious that we might think of doing it for ourselves, rather than waiting for a study to point it out. Children have “cuddlies” or soft toys they become very attached to and will often hold close as they sleep.

What are your favourite smells? Most of us will breathe in and smile or the scent of newly mown grass. There’s the smell of the seaside, bringing back memories of happy times on holiday, or, for those who have difficulty sleeping, lavender, a soft and smooth scent that can lull us into a calm, sleepy state.

When we think about food smells, there are the obvious ones to awaken our taste buds. Ground coffee, exotic teas, bacon. (I have a vegetarian friend who says the smell of bacon is almost enough for him to change his mind.) Roast dinners, freshly baked bread or cakes, all memories of good times.

pan of baconI know of someone else who realised their taste buds had been hit by a bout of Covid when they couldn’t smell the kippers they were cooking. They’ve tried the experiment of kipper-cooking several times since and still can’t. Smell is very important to us when it comes to eating. If we can’t smell what we’re eating, we often lose interest.

There are also the everyday smells – furniture polish, for example, or the pungent smell of bleach. What does that evoke? Polish, not an everyday smell to me, represents a clean room and it cheers. Bleach not so much. Unless it’s like chlorine in a swimming pool and my heart lifts. I love swimming pools.

Such memories apply to perfume too. I recognise some scents as memories of childhood and some bring good memories back. I recall spending a whole day in the company of a friend who was wearing a perfume that I recognised as one worn by someone I’d had great fun with as a child. I laughed so much with my friend I had to go out and buy my own. She, on the other hand, found my joy quite wearing. Her association may now be different from mine.

When it comes to other perfumes, I will physically recoil when I catch the smell of Miss Dior. I associate it with my mother going out when I was a child and, I suppose I didn’t like that. I was in the perfumery department of a large department store in London not so long ago and I caught the scent of it as a lady walked past. I felt physically sick.

My favourite smell in the world remains cigarettes and beer. I must once have been a publican’s dream. It comes from being an expatriate child and the times I most often saw my parents was at a club. In those days, clubs were all about cigarettes and alcohol – and swimming pools! Times change but I am smiling at the memory, without a cigarette or a glass in sight. Seems there’s still at least one reason to be cheerful after all.