Monday, 30 April 2012

Scent and Memory, Dementia and Ghosts

Imagine the aroma of roast chicken wafting into the living room, to remind you to get our of your arm chair and cook dinner, or being lured out of bed and into the kitchen, by the smell of bacon and eggs. 

Lizzie Ostrom spoke on the Today Programme (8.52 am) last week about her idea for applying the power of scent in a social care situation to reawaken appetite. According to Lizzie - @odettetoilette - one of the biggest problems of dementia is weight loss. Her innovation, Ode, is designed to stimulate appetite by releasing three mouthwatering aromas to to coincide with the user’s mealtimes. Whilst smell is often considered a luxury and the sense we could most spare, it can, as Lizzie is proving, be lifesaving.

I'd love to find out whether Victorian doctors came up with any similar inventions or wrote about smell as a combative to weight loss. It wouldn't surprise me all that much. Victorian physiologists wrote about how even thinking about a smell could trigger memories that ran along the same neural tracts as when the person had actually experienced that smell, and that since all the same physical responses were triggered, including salivation or nausea, the experience was really no different. 

Laundry smells revive memories of loved ones
Lizzie's invention inspired Anne Atkins to focus her next day's Thought for the Day (27th April) on the power of smell to trigger powerful reminiscences. She spoke for example of the potential of the scent of bluebells to bring back a memory of a lovers picnic in the woods or the aroma of a worn tshirt to conjure before us an absent loved one. For me the fragrance of Daz laundry power will always bring me close to my beloved, but now departed, nan.

But now I am talking like a Victorian Spiritualist. For seance goers, smells were imagined as a vehicle for telepathic communication between the dead and the living, acting as a bridge between the known range of human sensory experience and transcendental realms.

The Victorians were fascinated with the power of scent to stir the visual imagination, stimulating dreams and reveries, hauntings and hallucinations. Perfumes, it was widely held, bewitched the mind. They influenced dream imagery, roused the imagination and reawakened dormant memories of past scenes or surroundings. They created instant shortcuts to distant ages and exotic lands and raised the spectres of long-deceased loved ones.

This Christmas, I gave a talk at the Association of Art Historians Art History in the Pub event entitled "Scented Spectres and the Smell of Ghost", which explored Victorian ideas about the relationship between smell, memory, ghosts and visual hallucinations. Using fragrance sticks to accompany my talk and raise a few ghosts along the way, I discussed how the extraordinary immediacy and potency of smells for unleashing the visions of the mind’s eye held a particular imaginative appeal for popular Victorian writers. I recounted ghostly tales that draw upon a scientific interest in the power of scent to arouse memories and stimulate the mental faculty of visualisation. For Victorian ghost writers, unseen and intangible scents signified an almost unknowable presence hanging in the air, which altered moods and swayed emotions, endowing the ‘unseen world’ with a detectable, sensual presence.

Let's hope that through the scent of cooking, Ode, conjures only welcome ghosts and a pleasant change of mood.

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