Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smellby Rachel Herz
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Which of the five senses is the most important to you? Chances are, you didn't answer "sense of smell". But maybe you should have. In this startling work, Rachel Herz examines the role smell plays in our lives, and how, whether we realize it or not, the sense of smell is imperative to our well-being, both physical and emotional. In THE SCENT OF DESIRE, Rachel takes the reader through the psychology of our olfactory sense, and its effect on our emotions, our health and our relationships with people and our environment. She explores why our sense of smell functions like it does, looks at what purpose it serves and how it is linked to our survival and existence. She cites cases of patients who have lost their sense of smell and their experiences not only confirm it's importance in our lives, but illuminate the traumatic effect of life without the capability to smell.
The Washington Post
Herz, a Brown University professor specializing in the psychology of smell, demonstrates that this sense is vital to our well being-so important to mental and physical health that its loss can drive some people to suicide. Herz explores the relationships between scent, emotion and behavior, emphasizing that scent is an important component of sexual attraction and thus crucial for the survival of our species. Many intriguing facts enliven her book. For example, scents are intimately connected to memory and can be used as memory aids; olfaction shuts down while we are asleep; newborns and their mothers recognize each other by their scent. Herz debunks the mystique of aromatherapy, which she says is effective because of our emotional associations with scents rather than because of any direct action of the scent. Emerging technologies of scent, such as electronic noses that can sniff out terrorists, breath analyzers that can detect diseases and marketing theories based on scents, are given a chapter, but Herz admits that she would rather see the development of technologies to restore the sense of smell to people who have lost it, because for her, scent "is essential to our humanity." This illuminating book argues convincingly that the sense of smell should never be taken for granted. (Oct. 9)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Adult/High School -According to Herz, most odors are regarded as good or bad because of emotional or cultural associations, and none are universally experienced as one or the other. The author is recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the sense of smell, and in this book she takes a look at its physiology and psychology. The text is filled with interesting anecdotes and intriguing scientific studies about smell and its relation to human health and well-being. Herz hops around from subject to subject and has a few annoying habits (like referring to researchers she knows by their first names and researchers she doesn't know by their last names), but the volume is compelling nonetheless. Teens with an interest in psychology or biology will find this a readable source of fascinating facts.-Sarah Flowers, Santa Clara County Library, CACopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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The Scent of DesireDiscovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell
By Rachel Herz
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Rachel Herz
All right reserved.
the sense of desire
Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.
On November 22, 1997, Michael Hutchence, lead singer for the internationally renowned Australian band INXS, was found hanging naked in his hotel bedroom, the noose tied with his own leather belt. The last person to see him alive, onetime fling and longtime friend Kym Wilson, was at first suspected to be complicit. She insisted that she and her boyfriend had left Michael fully clothed the night before after a visit in his hotel room. Kym was soon relieved of suspicion and suicide confirmed as the mode of death. But why would the excessively successful and apparently want-free Michael Hutchence take his own life? What could have drawn him into such a deep depression that he would ultimately kill himself? Various accounts by friends and associates, including interviews with Michael Hutchence himself, point to a pivotal and life-altering event that could very well be the precipitating link to his suicide.
In September 1992, Michael Hutchence was in a freak traffic accident. Riding his bicycle home from a nightclub inCopenhagen, he was struck by a car and suffered a fractured skull. In an interview a few months after Michael's death, the journalist Robert Milliken reported in a feature in The Independent (March 1998), that: "His friends are convinced that the accident was a turning point that led to increasing bouts of depression and reliance on Prozac." Richard Lowenstein, the avant-garde Australian filmmaker, told Milliken that ever since the accident Michael was on a slow decline. He had never seen any evidence of depression, erratic behavior, or violent temper before, but saw all those things afterward, and he confessed that one night in Melbourne, Michael had broken down in his arms and sobbed: "I can't even taste my girlfriend anymore."
What was it about this accident that so scarred Michael Hutchence? Did he suffer undiscovered brain damage with pathological effects, or was it something more basic and obvious? Michael was a devout hedonist and completely sensual being.1 A self-confessed decadent, Michael's gourmand tastes and lust for life were centered around consumption, and now these lascivious pleasures were irrevocably altered, because the accident had stolen his sense of smell. Without the sense of smell, the temptations of food, the sweaty funk of sex, the essence of a walk on the beach, the feeling of nostalgia—the texture of life itself—were robbed from him. From all accounts, after this accident Michael fell into an increasingly debilitating depression from which he never emerged. As his melancholy progressed, he resorted more and more to both prescription and illicit drugs and alcohol, but these mind-numbing devices were in vain. Could it be that losing his sense of smell, which killed his most basic life pleasures, had such a cataclysmic effect on his well-being that he felt life no longer worth living? From all I know about the sense of smell and the consequences of its loss, this could very well be so.
My suspicion that loss of smell, medically referred to as anosmia (smell blindness), was a crucial factor in the suicide of Michael Hutchence is based on my insights into neurological, psychological, and clinical evidence. First, the neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate. The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions in the brain could possibly be. Smell and emotion are located in the same network of neural structures, called the limbic system. The limbic system is the ancient core of the brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain because we share it with reptiles, and sometimes called the rhinencephalon—literally, the "nose-brain." The key limbic structure to interact with our olfactory center is the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain's locus of emotion. Without an amygdala we cannot experience or process emotional experiences, we cannot express our own emotions, and we cannot learn and remember emotional events. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we perceive a scent the amygdala becomes activated, and the more emotional our reaction to the scent, the more intense the activation is. No other sensory system has this kind of privileged and direct access to the part of brain that controls our emotions.
Clinical research on patients who have lost their sense of smell also suggests that Michael Hutchence's anosmia could have led him to suicide. After an acute trauma such as a head injury, which causes anosmia, patients often report a loss of interest in normally pleasurable pursuits, feelings of sadness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, loss of motivation, inability to concentrate, and thoughts of suicide that can turn into action if not treated.2 These symptoms are all key diagnostics for major depression as described by the DSM-IV,3 the clinician's bible for classifying psychological disorders. The link between smell loss and depressive symptoms is correlational in humans, but cause and effect has been experimentally verified in laboratory animals. Rats who have had their olfactory bulbs surgically removed, and thereby can no longer perceive smells, display physiological and behavioral changes that are strikingly similar to those that occur in depressed people. They stop eating, lie around their cages, and are oblivious to the toys and activities that they normally vigorously enjoy.
Studies of people afflicted with anosmia also indicate that the development of depression is progressive. In one study that contrasted the trauma of being blinded or becoming anosmic after an accident, it was found that those who were blinded initially felt much more traumatized by their loss than those who had lost their sense of smell. But follow-up analyses on the emotional health of these patients one year later showed that the anosmics were faring much more poorly than the blind. The emotional health of anosmic patients typically continues to deteriorate with passing time, in some cases requiring hospitalization and in more tragic cases, such as Michael Hutchence's, ending in suicide.
Excerpted from The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Herz. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Since 2000, Rachel Herz, Ph.D., has been on the faculty of Brown University. She has appeared on the Discovery Channel, ABC News, the BBC, National Public Radio, and the Learning Channel, and is the subject of a Scientific American profile piece.
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