Sensory psychologist Gilbert to discuss smells in literature


Friday, Jan. 2, 2009 

MANCHESTER — Writers and authors are used to employing visual cues to describe a scene or tell a story. But the sense of smell is also a tool that can set time and place for a reader. Some writers use it well — others are terrible at it, said Avery Gilbert, a sensory psychologist and consultant to the fragrance industry.

The sense of smell — or olfactory awareness, as a scientist of the genre might put it, may be still a stepchild of the senses, but it's one that is drawing increasing interest among the scientific community. It's a subject that Gilbert — who has extensive family ties to Dorset — has studied at close range since his college days, and one that he recently finished writing a book about, titled "What the Nose knows: The science of smell in everyday life."

Gilbert will be speaking Wednesday, Jan. 7, as part of the Vermont Humanities Council's and the Mark Skinner Library's ongoing "First Wednesdays" series of lectures at the First Congregational Church. While his book deals with a wide spectrum of issues relating to smells and the responses they evoke, his talk will focus on the scent of literature — about the ways authors use smell in telling their stories and how that reveals the psychology of how we process odors, he said.

"There's all kinds of places where odor perception and pop culture intersect," he said. "One is the use of smell by creative artists — in the movies, in music, in art and literature. In this talk I'm going to expand on the part about how literary authors have used smell and a lot of examples about that."

Gilbert's background in the olfactory arts goes back a long way, to an original interest in animal behavior and how much of that was driven by their sense of smell — from marking a territory, to finding a mate to recognizing a mother.

Due in part to a groundbreaking survey of people's sense of smell published in 1989 in the National Geographic Magazine, where 14 million copies of the publication helped illuminate smell perceptions in areas such as sex differences, pregnancy and aging, he left an academic position to go to work for a French-based perfume company. Today he runs Synesthetics, Inc., a New Jersey-based consulting firm, he said.

"I kept doing science inside the fragrance industry, (and) did a lot of work on the underpinnings of human odor perception," he said. "People were always asking me questions about it, then it occurred to me — why not write a book about it? I have a storehouse of stories and know most of this stuff — I got an agent and there I was."

On his Web site, Gilbert lists a batch of thought-provoking facts about our sense of smell. For instance, who would have thought that when it comes to detecting odors, new evidence suggests that people are often as good at it as dogs are. Or that sniffing coffee beans doesn't refresh the nose after repeated smelling. Some people are much more attuned to smells and odors, others are oblivious and could care less about them, he said.

And then of course there is the physical attraction dimension to fragrances, the touchstone of the perfume industry. It's clear fragrances used by both men and women lay a role in partner selection — a forthcoming study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science holds that when a man changes his natural body odor it can change his self-confidence so much that the whole dynamic of why women would be attracted to him is affected, according to the current issue of The Economist Magazine.

"A person's body odor is one of the key things that can turn a person on or off about a potential partner," Gilbert said.

If there was ever any doubt about that, it was removed when the reaction to his National Geographic survey rolled in. He received about 900 letters — many from women writing to tell him about the scent of their spouse or boyfriend, some of it fairly specific and graphic, he said.

"That's what made it clear that smell and mate-selection are related," he said.

Gilbert, who comes up to the Dorset area for family reunions on a regular basis, will be giving his talk at the First Congregational Church on Wednesday, Jan. 7. It will begin at 7 p.m.

For more information, call the Mark Skinner Library at 362-2607.


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