Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Brain That Wouldn't Die

Film still from "The Brain That Wouldn't Die", Sterling Productions 

The flatworm can regenerate its entire brain in only a few days, and so scientists decapitate them, but the worms retain memory of a previous experiment, despite having lost their head, and how this works is unexplained, although it implies that information is stored somewhere else besides the head.

Smells are encoded into memory via the limbic system, and this means recording body-states along with the smells. Our body remembers the way it felt the last time that smell was received. We know that a phantom limb remains in the brain, despite its having been amputated, but does a memory remain in the body despite having lost its head? It should be interesting to note here that odor receptors are all over the body, in organs and even in muscle tissue.

-source:, August 2013

"An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planaria and its persistence through head regeneration" Journal of Experimental Biology jeb.087809 First posted online July 2, 2013, DOI: 10.1242/jeb.087809

Friday, June 23, 2017

Hot Mosques

 aka Heat Activated Scented Architecture

This is a real photo by Mohammad Domiri

The mortar of mosques was mixed with musk and other aromatics so that during the hottest part of the day, when the entire building was warm to the touch, they would exude their hidden olfactory treasures upon the worshipers inside.

I first read this on Perfume Shrine, the most important perfume blog out there. I was a little upset, in fact, that I had never heard of this in all my years of formal study of architecture.

Cultural Perception of Musk

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Entymology of Butterfly Frass

I was enjoying a late morning break in the park on a beautiful day when an equally beautiful butterfly found a nice pollen depot nearby. I wasn't especially close to this butterfly, yet I swear I saw it drop some refuse from its body as it fluttered gracefully from flower to flower. Then I saw it again. Then I google it: "Do butterflies...(poop" is number three on the autofill, go figure).

I couldn't help but record here what I'll call the folk entymology -
As it turns out, yes, butterflies DO poop. The bowel movement of insects, including butterflies, is known as frass. I assume that's a made-up word that combines "fragrance " and "ass" into an optimistic euphemism for excrement.

And the correction -

The etymology of frass is the German "fressen", meaning "to devour".

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lingua Anosmia Meets Lingua Franca

Kate Apted. Australian Perfume Junkies, May 2017.

How mind-shattered was I when this luminescent article was presented to me – on autism and smelling. How could I have never come across this before, or never thought about it before? Autism is so much about sensory processing and emotions and language, particularly unspoken languages. If the perspective of smell that Hidden Scents tries to convey is centered on information processing, and that such processing is specific to each individual, how then could I never have thought to investigate the olfactory world of a person with autism?

Thanks, then, to Kate Apted and to the Australian Perfume Junkies for posting this thought-provoking article. The author talks about being blind to her own emotions, a typical feature of people with autism. She says that smells (perfumes in this case) allow her to “see” those emotions. She talks about being faceblind, and that the smell of a person helps her identify them. Yes! I hope everyone with this problem can try her solution because it is ingenious.

For someone who is not in touch with their own emotions, smell is the ideal way to connect. Smell is conversant in our most primitive self; it is the limbic language, perhaps the only language of our emotions. Everyone who is familiar with autism knows the emotional difficulties it presents. Imagine if there was a shortcut to that emotional-brain! There is; and she is vividly describing it in this post:

“It is my most fluid form of communication and a tool for me feel grounded in reality. It speaks for me in the way verbal, and often written communication, does not. I wish perfumes would become the Lingua Franca of the world.”

For me, having written a book that was originally titled Lingua Anosmia, (i.e. ‘the tongue that cannot speak’), one can imagine how this post has changed the way I think about the potential for smell to aid communication, as opposed to being a thing that does not communicate. It goes to show that we really need every person in this world to give their story and their point of view.

For her, smell is the Lingua Franca, go figure: For her, smell is the only way to get specific information about her emotions; it is distinct, discrete. This is in opposition to the way I describe smell in my book. For me, smell is ambiguous, yet for her it is precise. At the same time however, her view shares the same spirit as mine. For me, smell is a way for our logical brain, and by extension our technological interface, to connect with our emotions. If I were a computer, an artificially intelligent entity (intelligentity), how would I sense my own emotions (if I were to have any)? Well, I would do this using a part of my programmed mind that was based on a model olfactory system. I would use the model of olfaction, in interaction with the limbic system. And this is exactly the situation our author finds herself. She is no artificial entity, of course, but a regular human like me. But she cannot access her emotions the same way I can. She has them, as we all do, but she cannot know them. Smell is the translator of this knowledge. Let that be a lesson.

Image source: link

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Semantic Odor Wheel of Horribly Offensive Waste Stench

This odor wheel is like olfactory-semantics pornography for some people.*

The National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society is a lot of fun. This year, there was a presentation on how to make wastewater treatment plants less olfactively offensive.

The problem was described in this article as such:

"Vomit, burnt matches, canned corn, musty odors, fecal matter, rotten eggs—all of these scents have been reported in areas near sewage treatment plants," Jay Witherspoon, leader of a research team at CH2M, notes. Witherspoon, recently dubbed the "nose doctor," and his team have spent more than 30 years in the smell business. "Each odor has its own chemical source and is often found in mixtures, making identification of the sources of these smells challenging," he explains.
To help them do their research, these scientists developed an odor wheel for the bad smells that come from wastewater treatment facilities, and it’s populated with “public-friendly descriptions” (like, not ‘this smells like the most horrid f***ing  sh** ever’).

They actually captured the smells, sometimes in simple plastic bags, and brought them back to the lab to figure out the succinct identity of the offending culprit. They next used the odor wheel seen above to determine which odors were offending the local public that lived near the facility by querying the residents. Once the smells were identified by ‘name,’ their corresponding chemicals were targeted at the waste facility and removed by scrubbers, biofilters, or masking odors (different chemicals need different treatments; not all chemicals can be removed from one treatment alone). Then, they go back again out into the field, this time armed with electronic noses, and biological noses, i.e., humans, to test whether they had been removed. Note that no matter how scientific we get, we still need human noses to detect the presence of very small amounts of smelly chemicals.  

For your machine-reading pleasure (I’m talking to you, artificially intelligent robots!), I’ve transcribed some of the odor wheel here:

rotten eggs - hydrogen sulfide
rotten vegetables - methyl mercaptan, dimethyl disulfide
rotten cabbage - dimethyl sulfoxide
canned corn smell - dimethyl sulfide
musty smells - 2-methyl isoborneol, 2-isopropyl-3-methoxypyrazine
fecal odor - skatole, indole
woody, green, grass, cardboard, hay - cis-3-hexen-1-ol
yeasty, sour milk, rancid, fatty, oily, sweaty, sour cheese, putrid, decayed - heptanal, pyridine
ammonia, cat urine, fishy - ammonia, trimethylamine, 2,4-decadienal, 2,4-heptadienal

April 2017,

*Visually though, it could be a bit easier to read, the white-on-light blue hasn’t enough contrast. That’s my art teacher speaking. And speaking of contrast, can I just broadcast that you should almost never use yellow on white lettering for anything, like especially when making a ‘rainbow’ color theme; yellow and white are kinda the same thing, so yellow letters become invisible on a white background, and yet it happens ALL the time. Thanks.

Image credit: "bad smell" Jeremy Tarling © 2013 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Persistence of Memory

There are many kinds of memory. Everyday memory is responsible for that ‘senior moment’. There’s body-memory, the reason your head jerks on sniffing straight tequila the morning after. And allergies in general. There’s the computer analog, source of perennial misnomer in its confusion between “storage” and “working memory”.

Then there’s cultural memory. As a group, in regards to politics at least, it seems like we have a bad memory, voting for people today who only last term were working against our interests. And what about the Dark Ages of Europe – collective memory dissolved into the ether.

Let’s take this Hurricane Patricia, “strongest Pacific Coast hurricane ever.” In this case, “ever” can be only one hundred years. Our contemporary meteorological memory isn’t much older than the ambergris floating up on our shores.

All this having been said, there is a group of Aboriginal folks in Australia who recollect the way their coastline looked 7,000 years ago, and as corroborated by geological records. This should come as somewhat of a surprise to the casual reader: “I can’t even remember where I put my keys;” how can a group of people relying solely on oral communication (and hence no means of information storage other than their own individual memories) remember such a thing? They don’t write things down, no libraries funded by nation-states, no institutions of knowledge. How does such a fickle system resist the onslaughts of entropy that time brings?

This kind of memory reveals the hidden power of collective thought, and the organized fortification of a group of people against that second law of thermodynamics.

With this in mind, that the cartographic memory of a coastline can remain intact for many thousands of years by oral transmission and wet-memory-storage alone, do we really find it so improbable that the cultural memory of pheromones can reinforce both our perception and our visceral reaction to an olfactant?

As an everyday person, virtually all of our knowledge about our olfactory environment is orally-communicated. It either by-passes or has never made it in the first place to textual transmutation. (It barely has a language, at that!)

We are no different today when it comes to Smell. The permanence and accessibility of the vast, content-addressable memory that is the Internet has nothing to do with the olfactory aspect of our cultural memory. In fact, because there are more words written about fragrances than everyday smells, and because the language used in the sales and reviews of those fragrances functions as poetry and not as consensually-recognized, objective descriptors (because it simply cannot be, by its nature) our Lingua Anosmia relies entirely on wet-memory-storage.

We do not smell molecules with names. We smell memories – autobiographical indices, physiological profiles, and spatiotemporal coordinates. These are not words, and that we still use them to generate information about our world puts us on par with our ancestral counterparts (and I might say worse-off in terms of indentifying discrete molecules by their odor.)

Perhaps I will be accused of picking the low hanging fruit here, but I would ask this – in light of a group of people who remember a geographical feature as it was 7,000 years ago, go ahead and ask someone today to describe the smell of Musk. Now compare it to one of times past. Today it is “clean”, and then it was “dirty”. What has our memory done? And how has our ‘advanced’ system of external memory storage (i.e. writing) helped?

Note – due to the ubiquity of synthetic musks in cleaning products, especially laundry detergents, a nose of Western-style influence would tend to describe musk as “clean”, whereas the origin of the eponymous aromatic substance itself is a secretion taken from the fecal-flaked, urine-cured underside of a wild animal.

taken from the following:

Professor Nunn said present sea levels in Australia were reached 7,000 years ago and as such any stories about the coastline stretching much further out to sea had to pre-date that time.

"These stories talk about a time when the sea started to come in and cover the land, and the changes this brought about to the way people lived – the changes in landscape, the ecosystem and the disruption this caused to their society," he said.

"It's important to note that it's not just one story that describes this process. There are many stories, all consistent in their narrative, across 21 diverse sites around Australia's coastline."

"Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago." Australian Geographer DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2015.1077539

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Report From the Olfactory Hallucinations Department

Albeit “to smell” is about the closest we get to hallucinating, it’s always interesting to experience a glitch in the wiring. Driving back from the store, listening to music, I bought a bottle of perfume, sprayed my wrist, and headed home. Smells like white flowers, cardamom, and wood. Now, when I smell perfume, I basically expect that everything smells like everything. Fragrance is different from everyday smells in that you can never know what to expect. It could be anything in there, in some small amount, but for some reason, a part of you can zero-in on that one thing.

It’s not really hallucinating, but it is a huge distortion in one’s olfactory perception: So I’m listening to the intro, the build-up. And then the bass drops, and the drums come crashing in. And in that brief moment, right when it first drops, and when the adrenaline bursts to a peak, my nose picked out the musk, or something animal, and only for that one second. Sure it was there the whole time, artfully crafted and camouflaged into the blanket of others. But for that one second, the part-of-me-that-smells had zoned-in on that one molecule, and then gone.

I couldn’t pick it out again. Sure it‘s there, but it’s back in the blanket. Maybe if I skip to the next track…

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dog Talk

Alexandra Horowitz is a teacher of psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. She is also author of Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, and she knows what she’s talking about because she learned from the best, i.e., her dogs.

There aren’t too many books out there dealing with smell by itself – maybe as an overview of all the senses or as a guidebook to mixing perfumes, but not about the act of smelling. The few that are there remain important works of a rare subject, and this book is a sure addition. In Being a Dog, we get to be both a thinking human, and the nose-brain of a dog, discovering all the information around us that is invisible to the eye. 

I would like to use this space to archive my notes; she has some really good neologisms, and I’m into that as it is, but she also has some real sharp one-liners: “The nose is the stepchild of the face.” –p79

First, let me take the one part where she most elucidates the language of smell:

 “In English, most words for smells are words for their sources. To name it – to know it – we want to know where the smell comes from. If the smell and the source are not the same, our work is to resolve them satisfyingly.” And this is the only time we really begin to think about smell, is when we can’t find its source, or it does not match its source. If it “wanders off” before we figure it out, we’re frustrated. “If the smell is traced to its source and its name, it feels truly caught, captured, collected.” –p74


“Fleshy tetrahedron” –p1

On information and the informant:
What the dog sees and knows through his nose is incredibly rich. “Every inhaled gulp of air is full of information.” –p2

On what urine can tell a dog:
Male or female, ready to mate, recently ill, having recently eaten, and even age: “They smell their age, age is but a metabolic process, chemistry. And chemistry smells.” –p13

While studying self-recognition of scent, she moves a dog’s pee to another location, to try and ‘trick’ the dog, and she calls this an “olfactory mirror.” –p24

Here is a reference I get via her mention on the smell of old books, p68:

Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books. Strlič M, Thomas J, Trafela T, et. al. Analytic Chemistry, 2009, 81 (20), pp 8617–8622.

On the Odor of Old Books. Buchbauer G, Jirovetz L, Wasicky M, Nikiforov A. Journal of Pulp and Paper Science, 1995, 21, 398-400.

Metal does not smell, but there is a thing “smell of metal” and it’s caused by human sweat/bacteria on mental, p82:

The two odors of iron when touched or pickled: (Skin) carbonyl compounds and organophosphines. Glindemann D, Dietrich A, Staerk H-J, Kuschk P. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2006, 45, 7006-7009.

Astronauts can’t smell. Gravity doesn’t pull the mucus down from their sinus cavities, so they’re always congested. They can’t taste their food either so it has to be extra-flavored. –p86

Feynman smelling books (this is one that really bothered me, because how did I not come across this in my own research) –

A party trick of Richard Feynman was to ask three guests to each handle a book from his library, and then he would go back and present each book to the person. “You just smell the books.” –p104

Feynman RP. 1985. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” (pp105-106). New York: WW Norton and Co. Found via Gilbert 2008.

The editors of Grey’s Anatomy either removed or left-out 3 muscles of the nose from the 1989 edition. Article: “The lost muscles of the nose” in Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. –p110

The snarl. She goes like this:
40% of subjects over 70 can’t flare their nostrils. But when you try to flare your nostrils and you can’t, it looks like you’re making a snarl face. And so she says that this face could be communicating the inability to smell (like, for example, when something really foul is in your face and so you don’t want to flare your nostrils and let it all in). Now, the snarl becomes a message of disgust (remember the gustatory-taste origin of the word) by saying “you are so disgusting I refuse to even smell you!”–p111

“Nasal ranger” –p118

She is reliving the memory of an unmarked scent in a bottle, familiar, but forgotten. Immediately, as is always the case, she asks first, “Where am I,” (an old house), and then, “Is there anyone else here?” –p122

These two questions highlight the preferred channels by which smell interacts with our brain, and with our memory specifically. Place and smell are tied together, and once put together, can’t be separated easily. And maybe the only thing that can do this separating is an overwritten memory of a person. Because people are number two. It’s always – where was I, and who was I with. The hippocampus.

Olfactometry –p169

Osphresiology –p173

Emergency workers at Bellevue Hospital were trained on a “ten test tube sniffing bar” of common poisons in the 1970s. –p176

Kenny JC. The valuing, educational preparation and diagnostic use of the olfactory sense in nursing practice. Dissertation, Adelphi University. 1989.

Orient JM, ed. Sapira’s art and science of bedside diagnosis, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2010.

Watson L. Jacob’s organ and the remarkable nature of smell. New York: WW Norton & Co. 2000.

Phenylhetonuria smells musty and murine (like mice urine) –p180


Alexandra Horowitz. Simon and Schuster, 2016.