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Marissa Lingen

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That stinks. [May. 5th, 2010|03:01 pm]
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Sometimes when I quit reading things, I have little pithy snarky posts about it. This time I wanted to highlight a factual error so that none of you will repeat it, because I've read this wrong, wrong thing more than one place:

It is, in fact, possible to remember and/or imagine a smell.

No, really. It is. I checked with timprov, who doesn't have nearly the nose I do, and it is not just me being a mutant superhuman. You may not be able to imagine or remember a smell, and that's fine. Some people can't process faces. Some people can't tell red from green. Some people apparently can't have smells in their brain without external scent stimulus. People vary, and that's cool.

But starting with the (supposedly nonfiction!) premise that humans cannot remember/imagine a smell and basing large swaths of social theory on it is just not on. I will be done at that point. I don't go around telling you that you can't possibly make up recipes without imagining smells if you don't go around telling me I can't do it my way. Among other things, it looked like a clear sign that this person had not so much researched his book as assumed his own universality. Not a win.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2010-05-05 08:05 pm (UTC)

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. . . I'd never even heard of somebody claiming that. Can't remember or imagine smells? What crack are they smoking? It took me YEARS to forget the smell of the dolphin necropsy I once observed!
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-05 08:32 pm (UTC)

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William Ian Miller claims that you can't, you can only remember how grossed out you were.

William Ian Miller is, on this matter, full of shit, though I recall enjoying him on early Icelandic law.
[User Picture]From: dancinghorse
2010-05-05 08:13 pm (UTC)

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What? Huh? My understanding is that smell is the first of the senses, the one that calls back the strongest and possibly the oldest memories. Even after sight and hearing fade, smell can still call up a memory.

Link: http://www.wisegeek.com/how-does-the-sense-of-smell-work.htm

And a link: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro00/web2/Ito.html

And so on and on and on.

Somebody is promoting personal opinion as fact. That's my opinion.

Personal experience? Agrees with the links. I can remember the smell of lilacs in my grandmother's garden when I was a toddler. And her old-fashioned roses. And even the bridal-wreath tree (light, fresh, barely there). All I need to do is think of it and it comes.
[User Picture]From: adb_jaeger
2010-05-05 08:29 pm (UTC)

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My understanding is that smell is the first of the senses, the one that calls back the strongest and possibly the oldest memories

While I agree with you, and the links, "smell triggering memories" is not the same as "remembering a smell".
[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-05-05 08:14 pm (UTC)

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You can remember smells? That's SO COOL. I never questioned the received wisdom because I'm one of those with a crippled memory. But if I had to choose between remembering smells and having a vast library of MP3s in my head, I'd still choose the music.
[User Picture]From: dd_b
2010-05-05 08:28 pm (UTC)

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So you've heard this truly weird claim elsewhere? Because I never have.

And the other direction, smells calling back memory, is REALLY famous.
[User Picture]From: tiger_spot
2010-05-05 08:14 pm (UTC)

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I frequently have a difficult time remembering or imagining smells for the same reason I have a difficult time remembering a particular song while a different song is playing. The world is quiet rather more often than it is odorless.

I'll just file "smells cannot be remembered" with "dreams are in black and white" and "thoughts are in language" under weird things that are apparently true for some people.

(Though if he's also got the the-thoughts-that-I'm-consciously-aware-of-are-mostly-words thing going, maybe that's part of the problem? There's practically no useful descriptive language for smells, so if he's trying to remember a description rather than the odor itself, that's probably hard.)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-05 08:36 pm (UTC)

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That seems to be exactly what he's doing, yes: he talked at some length about the dearth of smell vocabulary. Which makes me wonder whether he thinks he also recalls music as "okay, dominant, minor third up, dominant again, major fifth down...."
[User Picture]From: voidmonster
2010-05-05 08:18 pm (UTC)

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I... It... WHAT!?

Edited to add:

A google search turns up lots of people beginning from the assumption that you cannot remember smell. Almost all of the hits I looked at refuted the notion.

I'd never heard it before. It isn't like I've got Mris-level olfactilicious senses, but it's really very easy for me to call up lots of smells. The sorts of smells I can't remember are things like "what did the air smell like on Day X", where that is simply one of many details my mental compression routine has thrown out the metaphorical window. I can certainly imagine smells though.

Edited at 2010-05-05 08:29 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-05 08:38 pm (UTC)

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This is the problem with what we don't know we don't know: if you know that something works a certain way, why would you Google it? You know how it works, after all, and you can't Google everything.
[User Picture]From: mmerriam
2010-05-05 08:36 pm (UTC)

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I can remember the smell of my grandmother's rose bushes. I can remember the smell of fresh plowed Oklahoma red-dirt. I can remember many smells. Of course smells can be remembered, someone asserting that they can't is full of bullshit, which I can remember the smell of quite clearly. Okay, actually, they probably just process smells and memory in a different manner, but honestly saying that no once remember smells...
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-05 08:41 pm (UTC)

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Telling the difference between "I can't" and "no one can" is a major life skill, I feel.

I originally typed that as "if eel," and I suppose it would be for eels as well, on a smaller scale.
[User Picture]From: pnkrokhockeymom
2010-05-05 08:38 pm (UTC)

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I can remember the smell of grape Faygo right now. I determined to do so and conjured it up. Also, Puppy's dirty diapers (less of a pleasant thing), my mom's perfume while I was growing up, my fancy leave-in hair conditioner that I did not use today after shampooing, coffee, bacon cooking in my kitchen, and Puppy's hockey equipment after a day in my car.

There.

ETA: consistency in the use or non-use of boy pseud.

Edited at 2010-05-05 08:39 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-05 08:42 pm (UTC)

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Glad you spotted that yourself, as I was about to e-mail it to ask if you meant to put his "real" name in.

Anyway: this is such a trivial one. You don't even have to get out of your chair to refute him if you're such a person as can refute him. Which is now a substantial number of commenters, so I'm very sure it's not a mutant superpower thing.
[User Picture]From: mamapduck
2010-05-05 08:48 pm (UTC)

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Can you imagine composite smells you haven't actually smell? (You Mris, not "everyone".) I can remember smells I've smelled but I cannot imagine smells that combine two or more other smells- like for cooking. This may be part of why I'm a poor cook overall. I can't get a grasp of what a combination will smell or taste like until I experience it.

Anyone who thinks you cannot remember a smell has clearly never put meth up their nose. That's all I'm sayin'...
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-05 08:55 pm (UTC)

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Part the first: yes, this is how I make up new recipes. I put things in and smell for the holes until there aren't any gaps between what I imagined and what I'm smelling, or else until what I've got smells really good anyway.

Part the second: oh dear.
[User Picture]From: auriaephiala
2010-05-05 08:57 pm (UTC)

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I can remember, for example, the smell of an improperly-turned compost bin. And it's the FULL smell, not just how grossed out I was.

Or cinnamon hearts. Or freshly-baked bread.

I agree that it may be harder because you can't process it through your speech centre. But the memory's there.
[User Picture]From: oursin
2010-05-05 09:10 pm (UTC)

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I also remember other received wisdom that most people don't dream in colour. (Huh?)
Am sceptical.
And remember smells.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-06 12:42 pm (UTC)

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I think "most people" is at least less offensive to me than "people"--if he'd said "most people can't remember/imagine smells," I would have let it go a bit more easily. But on the other hand, it's harder to budge the myth, because if you yourself dream in color, you might end up thinking, "I guess I'm not most people," rather than, "Wow, is this guy ever full of it."
[User Picture]From: desperance
2010-05-05 09:45 pm (UTC)

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Does he have anything to say on the possibility or otherwise of dreaming a smell? Because if he links dreaming in with remembering and imagining - well, one of my strongest memories from childhood is the time that I did too prove (to myself) that I did too dream in colour, because there was a man smoking a cigar and it was yellow. So how did I know it was a cigar? Because I could smell it, and it smelled like a cigar.

And I remember the dream-smell exactly, even now.
[User Picture]From: ellen_fremedon
2010-05-05 10:51 pm (UTC)

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I've only ever had one dream that featured smell, at least that I remember, and it struck me particularly vividly, because I hadn't known it was possible to dream smells before then. And this one went all out on the smells-- an orchard of plum trees in full bloom, a wind coming in from the sea, wild thyme, lavender, honeysuckle, and fresh-hewn cedar wood, all in one place.
From: diatryma
2010-05-05 09:59 pm (UTC)

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I remember smells in the same way I remember sights; remembered sounds are a little closer to how actual sounds are. And I am not a scent person at all. I can't conjure them up on demand and the scent memories wear out faster, it seems.

Now I'm trying to... yup, I can get taste, a little, I think.
[User Picture]From: leahbobet
2010-05-05 10:02 pm (UTC)

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Huh. That's interesting.

Is this like when people say that you can't actually read text in dreams? Because I do that all the time too.
[User Picture]From: zeborahnz
2010-05-05 10:53 pm (UTC)

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I had a lucid dream about a book, and I could read the text but it was all nonsense - word jumbles. Do you get actually sensical text (for dream values of 'sensical')? <envy>
[User Picture]From: moiread
2010-05-05 11:14 pm (UTC)

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I can't conjure up mixed smells either. Huh. And I do picture the thing that I am remembering the smell of, usually in a familiar context. I can't think of any smells off the top of my head that are coming up independent of a visual image/memory, either, so I suppose they are probably attached in that way for me. But "for me" is the key, here, in that I assume that this is because my own personal visual sense is so much stronger than any of my others, and accounts for about 95% of the way I learn and the way I store memories*. But I do not assume the whole entire world works this way. In fact, knowing what I do about different learning, processing, and memory-storing styles/methods, I would bet a million bucks it works all kinds of different ways for different people. And it seems to me that if I were going to write a book about this kind of topic, I would do a bunch of research into it before trying to present any sort of definitive statements. Geez.

* I often have to use visual memory storage as a way to get around the auditory learning disability, actually, but that's another story for another time.
[User Picture]From: redbird
2010-05-05 11:51 pm (UTC)

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That's a weird claim.

I am not very good at remembering smells, but that's human range of variation combined with my being a very verbal person who speaks a language that is very poor in vocabulary for smell and taste.

Does the person in question also believe that it's impossible to think other than in words?
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-05-06 12:47 pm (UTC)

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I didn't get far enough to be sure, but he seemed to think there was a strong correlation between not having a precise word for something and not being able to remember it, which makes me wonder how he remembers how a French horn sounds different from a trumpet.
[User Picture]From: seabream
2010-05-06 01:49 pm (UTC)

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Huh. That writer's assertion is new to me, but it's not an one I'm astonished has been made. Most comments about the reasoning I'd have have been made already.

I'm in the category of people who can remember smells, dream them (though rarely), combine them (to some extent. There are a lot of processes I can't reliably do on them though - e.g.: predict how a scent would change if the substances producing it were on fire.), and not need to have them associated with an object or history (vis. I can smell something and remember that it is familiar without actually being able to place it. Which does mean that scents don't necessarily strongly trigger memories for me.).