Using the Brain (Not the Nose) to Smell
A systematic approach to the most fundamental of techniques for perfumers
Stephen Dowthwaite, Perfumers World
Over the past 10 years I have had the pleasure of instructing more than 6,000 students via online
courses and in-person workshops and private
courses. Their ages have ranged from eight
to 80, from complete beginners to some of
the most experienced professionals in our
industry. One of the first questions I ask in
the workshops is, “Have you ever had lessons
in how to smell?” I usually raise my hand in
the hope of encouraging a positive response.
Usually receiving none, I will dig further and
add something like, “Maybe your mother sat
with you and went through smells with you.” Still, without
fail, I will receive no response. It seems incredible that
the most important and fundamental of techniques to
the perfumer’s and flavorist’s skill—smelling—is hardly. if
ever, systematically taught, even for those in the industry.
Smelling, then, is largely left to practice and chance;
I have to be honest and admit that I too was not taught
directly, but instead picked up techniques as a byproduct
of working in perfumery. In the 1970s I was lucky to work
in one of the last small creative perfumery houses in the
United Kingdom, Picot Laboratories. As a young laboratory
assistant I would sit in on the morning perfumery smelling sessions and pick up techniques through observation.
But another 25 years would pass before I would stop and
actually think about how I smelled and write
down these techniques for others. This process of stopping and thinking about the way
we do something is enlightening and proves
to make the techniques one may already
unconsciously know and use far more effective and powerful.
VOL. 34 DECEMBER 2009
How We Smell
Smells, or the molecules that carry them,
drift on the air and are inhaled through
the nose. The molecules enter deep within
the nasal cavity and there fall upon the olfactory bulb.
The olfactory bulb, an outgrowth of the brain, holds the
olfactory nerve with some 10 million receptor sites that
receive the odorous molecules and generate a signal to
the thalamus, a complex relay station, and then onto the
limbic system—the area of the brain responsible for the
emotions, feelings of pleasure, fear, aggression, and (in
part) the formation of memory—and the hypothalamus,
the area responsible for controlling blood pressure, heart
rate, hunger, thirst, body temperature and sexual arousal.
The signals are relayed to the cerebral cortex where the
conscious mind processes the information and attempts to
perceive the odor as a recognizable smell.
Standing vs. Sitting
Smelling Strip Test
I suggest the following experiment:
absorb into the smelling strip so there is no lingering
intensely—just enough to enjoy it.
both from different companies and homemade
versions from other paper types. For the latter, one
can use chromatography paper, blotting paper,
business card paper, absorbent felt, linen paper, etc.
strip with the same amount, then note the odor
differences on each.
for the smelling strips.
Was there a difference in the odors? Did it appear to
be it stronger sitting down or standing up? If you found
a difference, why do think there was?
As a metaphor, this test can reveal contrasts as
striking as listening to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”
both through a telephone earpiece and in front of a live