The Science Behind Whiff

Posted: February 21, 2017 in Uncategorized, writing
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When I wrote Whiff, I only had my experiences with smell to draw on.  Jim was a fantasy character in my mind.  Jim’s heightened sense of smell seems beyond what is humanly possible.  He describes smell of dying like this:

It is the subtlest of odors, death—not unlike the smell from when one falls from lucidness into the first moments of dreaming—but perhaps a touch sweeter.

He describes Marie like this:

rain on early spring birch leaves, the filament of an orchid, and the slightest hint of cardamom

To be honest, I don’t even know if the filament of an orchid has a scent. In fact, I chose it because to smell it, you’d have to get passed the predominant smell of an orchid.   I wanted to convey that Jim is a savant of the highest order;  capable of detecting beauty beyond the reach of a normal person, or perhaps any person at all.  But maybe Jim is less of a fantasy than I originally thought.  It is likely that Jim is a hyperosmiac.  Wikipedia defines

Hyperosmia is an increased olfactory acuity (heightened sense of smell), usually caused by a lower threshold for odor. This perceptual disorder arises when there is an abnormally increased signal at any point between the olfactory receptors and the olfactory cortex.

This condition that Jim has is real science.  He was likely born with this condition, and it fits even better than I’d planned.  There’s neurology involved here.

What Is that Smell by Daniel J. Cameron, MD, MPH

Research studies examining impaired or heightened sense of smell have been focused primarily on patients suffering from neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Jim also seems to be on the autism spectrum.  His inability to recognize social cues and intense discomfort with communicating with the people around him would put him into the category of Asperger’s which is very much a neurological disorder.  It fits so beautifully and scientifically that Jim might have a heightened sense of smell and an obsessiveness associated with that of an autistic.

But it’s more than just a heightened sense of smell.  Jim is a chronic nostalgiac.  From an early age, his strong association with pleasure and smell conditioned him to have a dependency on smell in order to experience pleasure in the present .  It’s not enough to smell something that you’ve smelled before, there must be conditioning in order to have the kinds of responses Jim has.

How Smell Works by Sarah Dowdey

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the poolor lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

Although he’s a product of my imagination, there could be a real Jim Bronson out there.  But don’t just wait to find him.  Read about him in Whiff:   A Novella

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