Sunday, October 12, 2008

What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert: book review & preview

If you have been even marginally interested in scent and that mysterious and unaccredited source of fascination, repulsion and pleasure, the nose, then you must be in the know about a pleiad of myths, quotes and cognoscible pop-culture references: Proust's madeleine bursting forth 3000 pages of spirally-tapped prose, Zola's candid olfactory descriptions, Freud casting the aspersion of the smell as a lesser sense in advanced civilizations theory, Hellen Keller being the blind and deaf genius of nasofanatics, the sex-attraction of pheromones, sniffing coffee beans between fragrant sampling and the sweet smell of death. I should know, I read this ramification almost every day as they appear by both budding and seasoned smell fanatics on the online fora where osphresiophilia is being discussed among similarly-wired minds.
Avery Gilbert's book "What the Nose Knows" manages to dispel those and countless others in pellucid style, providing solid experimental data and studies to back up every claim; even minutely tracing the published sources of popular myths to exactly nil! (like the ultra-popular "10000 odours is the number of different odors humans can distinguish"). Some of that debunking crescendo is bordering on incredible: it's not easy to accept that we're not that inferior to our dogs' capacity for odor perception (or rats' for that matter) or that said canine's ability to sniff bladder cancer ~and not just any form of cancer as erroneously surmissed~ is not that spontaneous as one might think, taking in mind the rigorous training the subjects required in order to yield those astounding results which made the round of the globe fairly recently.

Dr.Avery Gilbert is a biologist, smell scientist, sensory psychologist and fragrance-industry insider who has worked in the R&D division of several perfume companies (such as Givaudan-Roure) and is now president of Synesthetics, Inc., a provider of innovative sensory science for the development and marketing of consumer products. He has contributed chapters to various edited volumes and published scientific papers in prestigious publications such as Nature.(a selection can be downloaded here) "What the Nose Knows" is his first book. But what prompted him into fruictifying?

"A review of Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent set me on the path to my own book: I was the only reviewer to give
"Emperor" a big thumbs down. (I was also the only scientist to
review it; the Washington Post, for example, assigned it to their beauty editor.) My notice appeared in Nature Neuroscience shortly before the AChemS conference, a big annual meeting of smell and taste researchers in Sarasota, Florida. Book reviews rarely attract attention in the scientific world--you're lucky if your mom reads it. Yet colleague after colleague at AChemS came up to congratulate me and say how much
they liked the review. More than a few suggested I should write my own book".
He introduces himself with a sense of humorous acceptance: "I was among the first people to smell Eizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds, but also one of the first to sniff purified 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid ~the aromatic essence of ripe, unwashed armpits." OK, we can stop being envious of his job at this point, I guess...

Full of interesting trivia and bypassing the cliché Napoleon's odorlagnia-laced billet doux to Joséphine (which every book on smell quotes anyway) Avery Gilbert goes instead for more treacherous waters, such as the flower idolatry of Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorn's little-publicized smell vignettes, the verse of Walt Whitman who idolised sweat and Richard Wagner's obsession with scent. Literature and the arts get their own section where the author goes into detail about shattering some of our preconceptions on literary odorphilia. Culinary enthusiasts will be excited over the crossover between food and wine aromas' comparisons and the attenuation of smell principles into a few dozen "flavor principles", as inspired by the work of Liz Rozin, will provide endless discussion. The forensically inclined will derive lots of info on how smell plays a paramount role in recognising stages of corpse decay, the astounding and gruesome realities of "New York deaths" and the not-urban-myths of corpses being hidden to rot under motels' beds; while the perversely intriguing issue of malodor gets its own fair treatment, from the scent of flatulence to the recreation of mamoth feces's aroma which is one of archaeology's dirty secrets (and boy, do I know).

A central point of the book, prompted by the Proustian rush of memories via the infamous soggy French delicacy, is the erosion of olfactory memory: “The purity and infallibility of smell memory ~an insight central to Proust’s literary conceit~ doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny.” This might give us pause for thought in our endless discussion about how fragrances change, even in placing faith into the recollections of experts who swear that batches of what they had smelled 40 years ago had a certain je ne sais quoi which is now absent or cannot be replicated. Could it be that it's all a projection of fears and desires like wet dreams and nightmares and our memory bushels the past into a more pleasing set of dimensions?

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is indeed devoted to "Spin Doctors": not con artists, but the scientists who have tried to come up with solid, measurable facts as to how the power of suggestion influences us into thinking something odoriferous is pleasant or unpleasant, potent or weak or even whether it is there at all! Like a perfume enthusiast said a propos of a similar point: "[it's like] the time when fluoride was about to be added to the water supply. Many people were horrified. This would surely kill them all! They displayed corroded pots and pans on the news, claiming that the fluoride had eaten away the metal. Indisputable proof, right? Except...Oops!....the fluoride hadn't been added to the water yet." Reading hard science data gathered via sensory experiments corroborating this somehow leaves you with the realisation that it suffices for some malignant acquaintance to fault your scent with smelling like something considered upleasant (enter any of the usual put-downs: urine, poo, bugspray, mustiness, creosote etc.) to make you believe you suddenly smell it yourself. It doesn't even matter whether the commentator really picks up the designated odour, it's enough that they proclaim it as such for your mind to conjure olfactory images of the offending attributes. This is stretched further to include M.C.S. (multiple chemical sensitivity), on which Gilbert hypothesizes that it might be a purely psychogenic illness despite his sympathy to the afflicted parties: the fear of an odor's power, as attributed by people into odors they consider fabricated, synthetic or otherwise malevolent, has the tangible potential to make them ill, manifesting actual physiological responses, as proven through university experiments and Van der Bergh's work at the University of Leuven, Belgium. And then again many might be attributed to bad associations: the case of former Playboy bunny Izabella St.James' aversion to baby oil or a WWII veteran's memory of crematories alerting him to a nearby funeral home scandal in Hesperia, northeast of Los Angeles, being two.

The reverse is also true, although on a less impressive manner, which accounts for the vividly purple prose we so often encounter through ad copy for fragrance products that promise olfactory utopia. Or even the subtle manipulation of audiences through scent, in cunningly consumerism overtones, such as the scenting of air in shops, as well as in fascinating and pioneering work such as that of Eric Berghammer, alias Odo7, a young Dutch artists touted as the world's first Aroma Jockey. Even the Hollywood use of Smell-o-Vision notoriety ~but not originality, as attested by previous paradigms dating back to the silent film era!~ through John Walters' film Polyester with Divine gets its fair share of analysis, leading to Andy Warhold "smell museum" and the hypothesis of science providing us with our own personal library of scents in the future through the human genome project, where the author is at his element.

Although the tone is light, it is not oversimplified to the point of condescending nor is it ever snarky, yet I would personally be thrilled if the author invited us into his experiences working on fragrant projects for commercial products: the whistleblower touch is always titillating to read. Additionally the attempt at humor sometimes sounds a little strained as if some sort of cathartic relief was needed after some truly gruesome facts presented: I'd like to think that we're able to handle it and if not, what were we doing reading a book on smell (as contrasted to perfume) anyway?

If nothing else, What the Nose Knows will make you never see Marcel Proust with the same eye again and if you have sat through Swann's Way into your literary pilgrimage with the inward impatient questioning "where are those promised odour landscapes?", it will provide welcome vindication. Even more encourangingly, the author proposes that there are no olfactory geniuses and the problem of correctly identifying odours (the "tip of the nose" syndrom) has to do with cognitive diffuculty more than sensory. He proposes that all one needs to be considered as such is an average sense of smell, empathy and a well-developped olfactory imagination. So there's hope for everyone it seems.

The book is published by Crown Publishers, NY and can be ordered through Amazon for $16.29 as part of a promotional offer.
Dr. Avery Gilbert maintains a site and a blog, First Nerve.

Sniffapalooza is featuring Avery Gilbert as one of their speakers at their annual Fall Ball on October 25, 2008, at New York City . He will discuss the psychology of odor perception and the enjoyment of perfume during a luncheon at the restaurant Opia, 130 E. 57th Street. The event begins at 12:30 p.m. Tickets and registration required.

Pic of book jacket through Avery Gilbert, madeleine pic through Les Ateliers du Parfum.


  1. Anonymous15:05

    Swaynne's Way? Huh? That's pretty laughable.

    Maybe somebody needs a proofreader here?

  2. Dear Helg:

    Where you write that you'd be thrilled to see Avery share his experience in the fragrance industry pinned it for me. Perhaps WTNK was his rush to get it *all* out there - all the stinks and theories and trivia and scientific findings that are part of his broad experience, and now we can only wish he'll write a book on fragrances.

    I, for one, would find it refreshing to read what someone who comes to the industry as a scientist, not a romanticist tied to the memories of perfumes past could share.

    A dream would be at least an essay from him on naturals ;-)

  3. Anya,

    indeed it might be as you say. I can only hope he will indulge us with more info next! (wouldn't that be exciting)
    And yes, the scientific angle is always interesting because it evaluates things in an concrete rather than empirical way.

  4. Anon,

    I am guilty of never using spellcheckers or proofreadersn and on top of that I am writing in a foreign alphabet!
    Therefore typos happen...it's been corrected, thanks :-)

    And for you to devote 20 minutes on my site means that despite all that something must have stirred and kept your interest ;-)

  5. Anonymous21:54

    So does this one give Turin a run for his money or doesn't it is the real question at the back of the mind of many and not just me I bet, what do you think?

  6. Oooooh, thanks for reviewing this new book. It sounds fascinating, a must read for me!

    x A

  7. Aline,

    they're totally different things. The Guide is full of funny and snarky reviews with which you might or might not agree and a light read throughout. The Nose is a seemingly "easy" book but with lots of hard data and info on smell-related matters.
    Different aims, although the audience might be common.

  8. Clarification on the above:
    "Common" to both, I meant; not common in itself.

  9. Abigail,

    thanks for stopping by! Yes, I should think you would have lots of enjoyment out of this book's revelations: some are quite stunning!

  10. Mike Perez17:29

    I have been on-and-off reading this book since I took it with me on my summer vacation (along with Burr's The Perfect Scent).

    I find it extremely easy to read & grasp his very 'scientific' concepts and theories...which is great. Although some of the articles are written in a very short style (almost like a blog) I look past that, because the content is very engaging.

    I have learned SO much about smell.

    The part of the book that 'scared' me a little was the true stories of people who lost their sense of smell and never got it back. That, IMO, is my worst nightmare.

  11. M,

    I agree with you, it's an easy read. I wondered why some of the articles are so small: it seemed like it was a conscious choice because of the general audience (?) that would pick the book.
    Complete anosmia is surely nightmarish: imagine never savouring your food again, urgh!
    (although I did get scared by the hidden corpses in beds stories more)


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