The science of smell is nothing to sniff at.
No one knows that better than Avery Gilbert, a psychologist and scent researcher who has been hired to do everything from detecting the source of a New York neighborhood's hovering stench to developing the appropriate aroma for kitty litter. Gilbert, the author of "What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life," is speaking at the Bell Museum this weekend.
Q Have you ever smelled that notorious Norwegian delicacy, lutefisk?
A Yes, once in Wisconsin. I didn't care to sample it.
Q How could my ancestors possibly have ingested that stuff?
A Certain foods are sort of deliberately gross, a mark of belonging to a group. If you can eat it, you're in the club. Japan has stinky tofu, Iceland has shark meat buried in sand for a couple of months.
Q I hate the smell of chicken pot pies because it reminds me of when, in early childhood, I saw my older sister drop a hot pan full of them on her bare foot. Why haven't I gotten over it?
A That's a powerful one-time association. You can also have really happy or erotic ones. The meaning of smells is open. We're evolved to not like the smell of things like urine or feces, but otherwise it's up to us what meanings to assign.
Q So why do smells seem to evoke more sharp, sudden memories than other senses?
A People commonly think that. There's an instantaneous flipping of the memory switch. In some ways I think it's almost delusion, because when we experience smell we're usually not paying attention to it. We try to remember the name and phone number of the cute girl at the bar, not what the bar smelled like. But the brain does take notice, and years later it might resurface.
Q How do you make kitty litter smell good enough for human noses but not too frou-frou for the cats?
A As with a lot of pet products, you're mainly appealing to the human who buys it. The trick with malodors is finding something that will mask them without drawing attention to them. So it would be useless to dump a bottle of Chanel No. 5 in there. You just have to find what neutralizes the ammonia best, through trial and error.
Q Why, if you lose your sense of smell, do you also mostly lose your sense of taste?
A Flavor is an illusory combination of taste and smell. The sense of taste is very simple, just the five elements of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory. Try chewing something flavorful while pinching your nose shut. Not nearly as tasty.
Q Are there really some people who are "super smellers," like perfumers -- and you?
A Sure, but anyone can learn to smell better, with more appreciation. You don't need a spectacular nose. With food, for example, start with separating the ingredients in a dish and know how each smells on its own. It's the same way you learn with wine. First you learn to separate out the oakiness of a chardonnay and you'll more readily recognize it again.
Q What's a smell you surprisingly love?
A I grew up in a small college cow town. Now, in New York, I love the smell of horse manure in Central Park. In the country, you really get anchored by smell, it gives a sense of place. I don't know if, in the city, you can get misty-eyed about the smell of the damp subway.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046