Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz

scentdesire I must admit that I was almost totally ignorant about our sense of smell until I read Rachel Herz's Scent of Desire. Herz is recognized as the world's leading expert on the psychology of smell, and she now shares her knowledge with us in this book.

Scent of Desire is full of fascinating information about our sense of smell and its functions, and after reading it, I am amazed by how much I now know on the subject. Most of us never really think twice about this amazing sense of ours, taking it for granted and never noticing how valuable it is until we lose it. I'm guilty of not appreciating my own sense of smell as well.

There's a question that I like to ask the people I meet in an effort to get to know them better, "If you had to choose, would you rather be deaf or blind?" Their answers let me learn a little more about them, but isn't it a telltale sign that out of all our five senses, we usually only focus on our sight and hearing.

Perhaps we believe it's unlikely for us to lose our sense of taste and even more unlikely to lose our sense of touch, unless someone writes a book about these two senses and enlighten us otherwise. We also seldom hear about people losing their sense of smell, but even if we did, we don't understand the importance of the loss and we'd probably go, "He's lucky he didn't lose his sight or hearing instead!"

The few times I've contemplated my sense of smell are mostly when I travel and am forced to use a particularly foul-smelling toilet. At times like these, I usually wish I could lose my sense of smell. I'm glad I didn't get what I wished for, after reading Herz's Scent of Desire, I now realize that a loss like that would be devastating.

While it's true that losing my sense of smell would mean that I would be spared from smelling foul odors from a dirty toilet, it would also mean that I wouldn't even be able to detect my own body odor. In the case of Jessica Ross, one of Herz's clients who became anosmic(loss of smell) in a tragic accident, she started becoming paranoid that every time someone looks at her in a certain way, it's because she smells bad and doesn't know because she couldn't smell herself. She would shower at least twice a day, and wash her clothes every day, and still she'd worry that she may have an offensive body odor that she wouldn't be able to detect. She also worries that she wouldn't be able to smell smoke and fire, or spoiled food.

Jessica is also more irritable and depressed since losing her smell, and cries often. She feels that she has lost her quality of life, and that she's disconnected from herself and the people around her. She's also lost interest in sexual intimacy and isn't as attracted to her husband as before.

Herz explains later in the book, that we instinctively choose our mates by their smell, and having our sense of smell tampered with by external factors may cause us to choose the wrong mate. In various experiments where men and women had to choose their most preferred odor of the opposite sex, they almost always chose the odor of someone with the most different biological makeup from themselves. The exceptions are in cases where the women are on birth control pills, in which case, they choose the odor of the person with the most similar biological makeup to themselves.

Herz's theory is that for the human species to thrive, we were instinctively built, biologically, to be attracted to the mate most biologically different from ourselves, to avoid inbreeding and to ensure the survival of the species. Birth control pills mimics the conditions of pregnancy, causing us to instinctively look for safety and family, which in turn makes us attracted to mates who are more similar to us biologically, rather than mates who are biologically different from us. Herz further speculates that this may be why there is such a high divorce rate in our society. Women on birth control pills find themselves attracted to men they normally wouldn't be interested in, and after getting married and getting off the pill, they suddenly find that they are no longer attracted to their men.

It's definitely food for thought, our sense of smell controls our behaviors and actions more than we know, and it certainly explains why we have so many relationship problems. Jessica's inability to smell her husband's odor may be the reason why she finds herself losing her attraction to him.

Herz also talks about the why some odors are considered pleasant to us and unpleasant to others, and vice versa. She says that there are no universally 'good' or 'bad' odor, liking or disliking an odor is due to societal conditioning. I believe her. Living in a country where the durian is called "The King of the Fruits" and savored by locals, it astounds me that foreigners, usually Westerners, can't stand the smell of this wonderfully delicious fruit. Apparently, it works the other way around too; Westerners love cheese, which Asians supposedly can't stand. Personally, I love cheese, but I know a few friends who hate it. I suppose there may be some Westerners who love durians as well.

One anecdote of Herz's that stuck in my mind was about how she became fascinated with our enigmatic sense of smell. When she was a little girl, she loved the smell of skunk, and it was only when she expressed her love of the scent to her friends that she discovered that the smell skunk was supposed to be "bad" when they made fun of her.

It reminded me of something similar that happened to me not too long ago in college, when a friend of mine just came back from a break, and I said to him, "You smell nice." He and a couple of other friends gave me weird looks, and it wasn't until later, when I realized that he smelled of cigarette smoke, that I understood why they behaved so strangely at my compliment. In fact, I thought I was weird!

While the information Herz shares in The Scent of Desire assures me that I'm not abnormal for liking the smell of cigarette smoke, I have no idea why the smell of it on my friend smelled good to me, I don't remember any particularly good memories associated with the smell of smoke as I am a non-smoker, and no one in my family smokes. As for what happened with my friend after that, he probably thought that I was interested in him and that was just a terrible pickup line, because he went out of his way to be nice to me after that.

Herz also covers other odor-related topics like aromatherapy and how lavender, peppermint, and other oils don't really have any beneficial effects on us except through conditioning, how particular smells can trigger long-forgotten memories, the link between our senses of smell and taste and how our sense of taste can diminish without our sense of smell, and what the future holds in odor technology.

The information contain within the pages of The Scent of Desire is astounding and sometimes mind-boggling, but Herz conveys these information so well with her wonderfully charming voice and writing style. She is a pioneer in this field and she has my utmost respect for creating the awareness we need about our amazing sense of smell.


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