The Sentimental Sense

By Eleonore de Bonneval

© Eleonore de Bonneval
© Eleonore de Bonneval

When I come across smells that were important in my life, I can instantly visualize them. They don’t have to be elaborate smells to instantly bring back a flood of memories and emotions. Freshly-cut grass triggers an image of my brother mowing the lawn in the centre of France, the smell of lavender reminds me of the lavender bags displayed in my childhood cupboard and the seemingly terrible smell of Marmite – I do hate it – always sends me back to my first trip to the UK. As if by magic.

As a photographer, I wondered if that capacity of ‘visualizing smells’ was what we call synesthesia. I was told it wasn’t. We memorize smells in the emotional context in which we perceive them. Of all our senses, it is the closest to the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes smells and which is also responsible for emotions and long-term memory. Smells link the outer and the inner stories.

In his novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust experiences a vivid recollection of a long-forgotten memory. Smelling a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit brings him back to his aunt’s house in Combray. Now known as the ‘Proustian phenomenon’, the author also illustrates the concept of ‘Smellscape’ as defined by geographer Douglas Porteous. Unlike vision and touch, smell is defined as a ‘non-spatial’ sense. It contributes to enhancing our sense of space and its character. Porteous insists that ‘while one may stand outside a visual landscape and judge it artistically, as one does a painting, one is immersed in smellscape; it is immediately evocative, emotional and meaningful’.

© Eleonore de Bonneval
© Eleonore de Bonneval

Research on memory suggests that putting down one’s feelings can assist memory as well as attenuating the emotional experience. Recalling facts, emotions, and feelings are key to anyone who has experienced trauma and senseless events, and who need to dissociate from past experience. In 1996, Van der Kolk, Mac Farlane and Van der Hart demonstrated that involving all of our senses in this process is the accurate way to place the experience in its ‘proper context’ and reconstruct it ‘into neutral or meaningful narratives’.

Scientific evidence has also indicated how this process of recollection ‘regulates negative experience’ and ‘may ultimately contribute to better mental and physical health’. For better efficiency, such actions should involve all senses including smell but vocabulary lacks to express olfactory encounters. According to Jonathan Müller, this deficiency to describe smells might explain the power of this mute and invisible sense. Expressing smells turns into an arduous task requesting a complicated mental process, since they mingle so intimately and intangibly with our emotions.

Communicating trauma narratives, expressing the events in a complete and lucid form, is what is required of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since 2007, specialists of ‘exposure therapy’, which has been proven in the past 25 years to be one of the most effective ways to treat PTSD, have decided to create a ‘virtual Iraq’ simulation allowing soldiers to relive and confront their psychological trauma. The software stimulates all senses as perceived in the battlefield: the sights, sounds and smells.

Psychiatrist Skip Rizzo and Director of Medical Virtual Reality, Institute for Creative Technologies, insists on the importance of creating ‘a very interactive and engaging experience that the patient goes through where they tend to relive their experience in a safe, supportive environment’. According to him, sounds and smells of gunpowder, cordite, burning rubber, Iraqi spices, barbecued lamb and body odour evoke the most powerful memories.

The potential of recovery using smells to trigger emotional memories could go beyond the recovery of war veterans from PTSD. Since 2001, olfactotherapist Patty Canac and a team of practitioners from Garches Hospital, France have offered olfactory workshops and provided olfactory stimulus to patients in need of neurological re-education, to adults and teenagers in oncology or to patients in geriatrics. Exploration of the olfactory sense and its impact on the brain to recover from memory loss and traumatic experiences is vast and what the future holds offers great hopes for patients.

Eléonore de Bonneval is a London-based freelance photojournalist who began documenting health related issues as part of her photodocumentary degree. She investigated the role played by the sense of smell and the impact of anosmia (lives without a sense of smell) in daily lives. The Sentimental Sense is a photography and interactive exhibition that explores memory and emotion through smell, presented as part of the Hidden Senses event at the Dana Centre (Science Museum).

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