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Scents and sensibility: People don’t talk enough about the smells they don’t like


Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @sage_of_absurd

Brain scans have shown that neurological activity is much more active when smelling something that you associate with a past experience than something you may have seen.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

I don’t think any of the senses trigger more emotions than smell. They kind of remind you of something good, something bad, they can make you feel ill or nostalgic. And a good scent can make you fall in love or in lust and a bad one has, on several occasions, made me want to break my own nose off to spite my face. I do not care.

If I smell something bad enough, I will destroy my nasal passages. In fact, one time we spent a weekend at a place that smelled of such horror and death that the only thing that would mask it was copious amounts of Doom. Yes, you read that right. Not expensive Italian perfume – I tried – not air freshener or essential oils or a vaporiser, just your good old off-the-shelf poison. An entire can of it, every single day until the air was thick with pesticides and lots of coughing. Rather that than the rank stink of sewage funnelling up my nostrils is what I say.

Scents carry memories. Science has proven this several times. Again, now when I smell Doom, I think of my weekend of death while staying at that morgue that looked like quite an ordinary Airbnb. It was not.

Why is that? Why can I not forgive and forget? There were other things in that house that I saw, with my own eyes, that are not triggering at all. For example, since that stay, I have seen many a cracked porcelain teapot – no association. Or the blue, flowery comforter on the bed – Woolies sold them at one stage and, again, it did not transport me back to that place. But smells? Definitely.

Brain scans have shown that neurological activity is much more active when smelling something that you associate with a past experience than something you may have seen. This is called olfactory stimuli.

Visual cues are not nearly as connected to the architecture of the brain as much as olfactory cues, and there are a variety of scents, especially natural ones, that are universally pleasing. Like the smell of rain.

A vast majority of people enjoy the smell of a moist Earth or the sea air. Of course, everyone will tell you that they like the smell of roses. I have yet to meet a person who does not like that smell.

All of these scents could be the metaphoric automobiles of travelling to a place where you may have experienced it first. But many a time, natural aromas just are what they are. They don’t take you anywhere.

You smell them often and anywhere and your brain architecture doesn’t necessarily put you in place, except Earth of course, where you already live. I hope. Except for Donald Trump. Who knows where he lives – but I know it’s rancid.

But focusing on positive things is quite boring and I don’t think that people talk about the stenches they don’t like enough. I think we fear that it may make us weird or unpopular or just gross people. There are many things we can agree on as a human race that we think smells vomit-inducing.

Dairy that’s gone bad, for example, or latrines that have never been cleaned. If you have ever been to Delhi I guarantee that you will not enjoy the thick air of what I can only describe as burning bodies and human faeces, although I must say you forget it quite quickly when you experience the beautiful city. But then there are things we differ on. The things we don’t talk about because they’re far too controversial, and that thing for me is the smell of grass.

I found myself outside the country club the other day – also known as Virgin Active – and the lawn was being mowed. It didn’t take long for the smell of cut grass to waft through the air. And I just thought to myself, anyone who likes the smell of cut grass has got to be lying. The only thing it reminds me of is the breath of a goat or cow and we don’t go around sniffing that at every opportunity, do we? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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