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Mysteries of olfactory science

Last month we spent some vacation time at my in-laws' house, which is a new, clean, dry, prefab dwelling in central California. When we got back, our 1940s Seattle house smelled old and musty in a striking way that I usually don't notice. It wasn't an altogether bad smell--it mostly reminded me of secondhand record stores and vintage movie theaters. Still, I had to wonder, is that the smell that hits everyone in the nose when they enter our house?

However, yesterday we returned from a weekend at my parents' vacation house across Puget Sound, a 1960s kit house (cabin, even) coated inside and out with smoke, sand, marine air, fir needles, dog hair, and probably 324 kinds of mildew or mold. (Really, it's charming, and the location is possibly my favorite on Earth, but such is the state of the interior air quality there.) When we came home after that, my nose found with pleasant surprise that our house smelled crisp and clean and fresh.

The difference is possibly due in part to the length of time our house was unoccupied--ten days in the first case, only a day and a half in the second. Being unlived-in and having the thermostat turned down and the windows shut probably contributes to a disused smell of its own. But I can't help thinking the main part of the difference lies in the air we got acclimated to in each case while we were away--arid and new on the one hand, damp and quaintly crumbling on the other. I guess our house's smell lies somewhere in between, and it's likely that whoever enters it will smell mainly the difference between our house and what they personally are used to.

This just goes to show that those designing perfumes, or studying olfactory science, have a heck of a lot of subjectivity to factor into their calculations. I wish them the best of luck.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2011 08:04 pm (UTC)
I spent today in the town that is probably the world HQ of such research (Grasse), although it's hard to say for sure - there's a lot of secretiveness. I've sniffed a few hundred different scents and essences today - now everything smells weird to me; my sense of smell is all cross-wired somehow. I'm drinking chamomile tea, and it smells nothing at all like chamomile tea - I've looked at the label on the box (the same box I've been using all week) three times to make sure it really is. Somehow I've accidentally discovered the olfactory equivalent of those "miracle berries" that change the taste of everything.
Jul. 2nd, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
Grasse!! I am jumping up and down in vicarious excitement. Yes, from what I gather, Grasse is a major center of perfumery, and *the* center for certain kinds of jasmine, rose, and/or lavender essences (I forget which). And I would love love love to visit it.

And yep, I've experienced that cross-wiring. When I go nuts and sample bunches of scents in one day (as I do from time to time, thanks to indie fragrance shop Knows Perfume opening in my neighborhood last year), I smell the natural and everyday world differently for the rest of the day. Sometimes it just makes everything smell odd and off, and other times it specifically highlights notes or accords I'd focused on that day--bergamot-like notes bouncing out of proportion, say, and making themselves known where I didn't previously notice them. Yeah. It's an interesting science and quite the luxurious hobby.

Have fun on your trip! (Figure I know who you are, despite the lack of login, or perhaps because of it.) ;)
Jul. 3rd, 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)
Heh - I didn't even realize until now I hadn't logged in. In honor of that earler absentmindedness, I'll just remain anonymous...
Dean Mayes
Jul. 4th, 2011 03:16 am (UTC)
I think that it's all to do with the dust. Because we occupy our living spaces almost non stop most of the time, we stir up the dust and it never gets the chance to settle and develop the necessary aromatics required to infuse it's smell signature throughout the house. This combined with the fact that, one assumes, we are clean living people who dust and damp dust quite frequently.

When we leave said living space for an extended period of time, the dust settles and the organic (or inorganic) compounds within those particles are allowed to...mature...aromaticize...(???) Thus each individual particle is allowed to give off it's unique signature.

For example, my family and I recently returned from a holiday to Victoria and on our return there was the distinct odour of red wine, cheese, mashed vegetables and banana. Upon reflection, I remembered what we were doing the night before we left and thus the dust we shed that night would have been imprinted accordingly.

Sadly, I was the only one who didn't shower the night before :0
Jul. 5th, 2011 11:07 pm (UTC)
Well, I certainly don't dust that often... :D But I think there's definitely something to the theory of the lived-in smell versus the settled/dusty smell. And the last thing cooked in the house does seem to linger strangely long.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )