We are damaged provider modules

(September 3, 2007)

Scents are encrypted messages from the world to our brains. They are not cut-and-dry sensory data like visual cues, nor immediate external instructions like sounds, which are able to spur our central nervous systems into action before our conscious minds can react. (See also: Humans' responses to the scream of a baby or the roar of a lion.) They are subtle, whether owing to the weakness of our noses or the indirect nature of their purpose, and they build nothing concrete. Their encoded contents speak of time, calling stored memories rather than presenting themselves directly; they tie everything together, but when experienced alone, they are elusive and difficult to place.

There is a bottle of hand soap in the kitchen at my office that smells like an Oakville apartment I will never see again. I haven't been seeking opportunities to use it, but whenever I do, I find myself playing with my hair or one of my earrings, hoping to catch a whiff of history. Its scent is one of those nebulous constructions designed in a laboratory and tested on ten thousand discerning consumers; it's labeled something unevocative like "Spring Mist." Lacking the olfactory power of a bloodhound, I have no idea what spring mist smells like, so I have assigned the soap's scent to its label, rather than assigning a label to the scent.

But the actual smell of the product makes no difference. I had no idea that I even remembered it – scents are impossible for me to recall offhand, unlike other sensory information - but the first time I used it at work, it was so familiar that I was locked in brief but all-consuming remembrance. When its unidentifiable essence wends its way to my brain, it summons a jumble of images and sounds, pulling them out of the sticky morass of my collected memories without chronology or logic.

Paper airplanes, a falling screen door, five hundred glasses of blue Kool-Aid, Marge Simpson's grating mumble, laughter and yelling and the occasional snore: they appear out of nowhere, branching out from every inhalation to fill my mental queue for just as long as the scent lingers. They reach further back, snagging only tangentially related memories; other places and other times, their individual contexts erased. Each moment is separated from the original location it held in my mind and couched in an overriding sense of regret, interweaving into a painful little spirit quest sponsored by the good people at Proctor & Gamble.

Scents also have the power to retrieve memories that no longer quite exist, quiet messages from the past that have been buried under the thick sediment of passing years. I have a good memory, but there is still the occasional half-spectre brought on by a whiff of something not quite familiar; it is the memory of a memory, a silhouette that suggests that something should be there to fill it. If smells act as pointers to the information we have stored, then some of them are poorly-programmed, pointing to memory that has been rellocated or corrupted. The soap brings on some of these, too: half-formed scenes and emotions that I know I should remember, but which are no longer accessible. It reminds me that memories are the work of a collective, rather than an individual; to remember, we must speak of memories with the people who share them.

But until then, there's a bottle of liquid memory available next to the dish dryer, its contents ready to speak, Enigma-to-Enigma, to the brain capable of decrypting them.