Aroma Therapy and Instant Nostalgia

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


Aroma Therapy


About a decade ago, the hip, the yuppies, and the avant-garde community came up with the commercially salable idea of aromatherapy.  Most big shopping malls in major cities now have at least one kiosk or boutique where you can walk in and nose test one or more of their fragrances.  People who eventually sniff what they are looking for are likely to buy.  Why?  The answer is physiological as much as it is psychological.  The olfactory senses in the structure of the nose are channeled into our brains where the nerve endings meet at a place where memories reside.  Memories of smell!  As part of the superstructure of our brains, the repository where odors reside is akin to those similar repositories where tastes can be recalled, where traumas have been stored, and where details of certain epic events have resided ever since they occurred. Neuroscientists refer to the process as hard-wiring of the brain.

Most potential memory events are lost due to weak bonding of electrons across the synapses; and are justifiably categorized as short-term memory events. On the other hand, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center; and other traumatizing events more often enter into our long-term memories with the aid of fortified bonds that become hard-wired and resilient.  Just as certain tastes can be unscrambled and identified within a few seconds, certain smells can also be recalled from the archives of our brains.  The tastes and the smells are located in their own compartmentalized archives of our brains, and any fresh scent that is introduced into and through our noses is a call for retrieval from that part of the brain where those records are stored.  Thus, instant nostalgia!

The Footloose Forester is in no way a neuroscientist, so he will not be embarrassed if he is called out for espousing pseudo-science.  On the other hand, his recollection about some of the findings that have been published by neuroscientists encourages him to speak openly about what his interpretations are.  If and when any reader can pinpoint a certain smell with an instant memory from the past, it makes a point.  That is not saying that it proves the point; just that it demonstrates that the brain’s reaction to a particular stimulus suggests to all of us that those olfactory stimuli have appropriate receptors in our brains.  Enough of pop science, for the moment.    

In our personal lives, each of us most likely has a least a few smells, odors, or aromas that instantly take us back to something in our past lives.  For the Footloose Forester, too many of the olfactory reminders are repulsive clues to things he would rather forget, but cannot.

The smell of death is one odor he wishes he could wash from his memory banks.  For anyone who has been close enough to be jolted by the smell of death wafting on a breeze, there is a knowledge that you cannot escape its vapidity as it enters your nostrils.  Worse yet, there is the dread that the odor of death can and does linger in your nostrils for two or more days.  One somber example of the pall of a death cloud comes from the remote Third World country of Cape Verde.

Fellow-Contractor Phil Coolidge was lying near death inside the Praia Central Hospital when Footloose Forester walked outside to avoid the sobs and ever-escalating sounds of heart-rending wailing of the people inside.  He tried to choose a place far enough away to be beyond the hopeless sights and sounds of the impending loss of his friend.  He chose to go to the end of the street outside of the hospital, to a dead-end marked by the side of another building.  It was a bad choice.  Although he could no longer hear the wailing, when a slight breeze arose it brought with it an unmistakable odor composed of three distinct parts: one part decomposed feces from the alleyway; one part stale urine from that same sheltered alley; and one part the smell of death from inside the hospital.  There was no way to cleanse the air of those after-effects of life in a Third World country where there were very few toilets, latrines, or sanitary structures to keep the air clean.  In that alley, on that sad night, Footloose Forester breathed in all three of those repulsive odors in the very same wisp of air.   


The smell of horse manure is hardly less offensive to the nose 


Such a repugnant example of olfactory stimuli is the antithesis of aromatherapy, but it cannot be denied that certain smells or aromas are legitimate candidates for being hard-wired into our brains.  Too bad, the smell of stale urine and decomposed feces is all too common in congested areas of Third World countries.  Worse yet, those smells hang like a pall over large portions of metropolitan areas where the poorest of the poor live in squalor, oftentimes within sight of the fanciest of hotels and resorts. 

An odor I would love to forget!
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