Must we stop and smell the flowers?

Apart from passive receptivity, I have had no more opportunity to experience perfumes than any other nose in the average crowd. And even in that chaos, the scents seem to be equally admixed with whatever else clings to us -not all of it encouraging. But I have to believe that the ability to notice different smells, let alone be repulsed or attracted to them, must serve more purpose than merely warning us off things that might be harmful. Why dedicate an entire organ just to avoid rotting carcasses or to pick pleasing flowers -as socially useful as that might be?

Indeed there may be an entire chemical vocabulary entrusted to smells, that enriches the umwelt of the otherwise utilitarian world of the animal kingdom. Given our common origins, why would we be any different?

Of course, except for their behaviour, animals are unable to communicate what they are reading in the odour, and until the very recent identification of olfactory receptor genes, even variations in humans were, by and large, a mystery. And yet, their importance is signalled by the finding that these genes appear to constitute the largest gene family in all the mammalian genomes.

The problem, perhaps, has always been in the attribution. As with animals, if we don’t know that odours are responsible for an action, we wouldn’t think to credit them. If a dog, for example, marks a spot after smelling it, we have no idea what that means. Does it merely suggest that the dog simply likes whatever it was it smelled, or something more? Is the dog leaving a message other than ‘I was here, too’?

You see the difficulty: an odour may engender an action, but neither the signal nor the response can be reliably categorized as anything other than a generic stimulus/response. And given the size of the olfactory receptor gene family, a purposeless, or motiveless reflexive response seems unlikely.

So, how have we made use of this prowess historically? Well, for one thing, we have used odours, to mask odours -a rather recursive, circular activity, it seems. The fact that bathing, at one time was frowned upon -or perhaps difficult to achieve with any regularity for other than the wealthy- usually demanded olfactory disguise amongst those not similarly handicapped. The need to remedy the resultant smell, in itself suggests a nascent awareness of a message, camouflaged as it might be in societal norms.

And, think of the now discredited Miasma theory: that many diseases -the Bubonic Plague springs to mind- were caused by ‘bad air’: smells, in other words. One can certainly understand the conflation of the odour of, say, rotting meat and sickness that might follow ignoring the message inherent in its telltale reek, with the idea that the smell itself might be the cause. Only when germs were identified, and -in the absence of germs- not the air around them, did the idea of smell become merely an indicator, not a cause of disease.

But there’s a hint of a more useful and atavistic function of odours in the discovery of its importance in the initial bonding and identification of human mothers with their newly born offspring. I suppose it should have been obvious for millennia, though: an orphan lamb is often rejected by an unrelated lactating mother unless the strange lamb is made to smell like her.

So, where am I going with this? Well, first of all, the findings of a recent study [lead author Casey Trimmer, PhD] published online in advance of print in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190430164208.htm

‘Humans have about 400 different types of specialized sensor proteins, known as olfactory receptors, in their noses. One odor molecule can activate several different olfactory receptors, while any given receptor can be activated by several different odor molecules. In a process that remains to be decrypted, the olfactory system somehow interprets these receptor activation patterns to recognize the presence, quality (does it smell like cherry or smoke?) and intensity of millions, maybe even trillions, of different smells… Small differences in olfactory receptor genes, which are extremely common in humans, can affect the way each receptor functions. These genetic differences mean that when two people smell the same molecule, one person may detect a floral odor while another smells nothing at all… Because most odors activate several receptors, many scientists thought that losing one receptor wouldn’t make a difference in how we perceive that odor. Instead, our work shows that is not the case…  A change in a single receptor was often sufficient to affect a person’s odor perception… olfactory receptors in the nose encode information about the properties of odors even before that information reaches the brain.’

Why the receptor complexity if odours are mainly simple social adjuncts? Or, is there more going on than meets the nose? Obviously we seem to have less appreciation of the panoply of chemicals around us than, say, the average dog, but because we do not ‘smell’ them with equal facility, does that mean they have less of an effect on us? As we have begun to appreciate in terms of mother/infant recognition, not all odours reach conscious awareness. Not all smells are nameable.

Some perfume manufacturers maintain that their products contain pheromones (chemical signals) which might activate aphrodisiac-like behaviour in humans, but so far the evidence is tenuous, to say the least. Given our common evolutionary history with animals who do produce and react to pheromones, and our own incredible biological investment in olfactory receptors, however, I suspect it is just a matter of time before similar chemicals and effects are identified and utilized in us.

What brought this whole subject to mind, though, was a titillating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about Cleopatra’s perfume: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/may-be-what-cleopatra-smelled-180972854/

‘Back in 2012, the archaeologists uncovered what was believed to be the home of a perfume merchant, which included an area for manufacturing some sort of liquid as well as amphora and glass bottles with residue in them… The researchers took their findings to two experts on Egyptian perfume, Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, who helped to recreate the scents following formulas found in ancient Greek texts.’

And, no, there’s no proof that what was recreated was what Cleopatra used -in fact, ‘It’s believed she had her own perfume factory and created signature scents instead of wearing what would be the relative equivalent of putting on a store-bought brand.’ But still, it’s a smell that Cleopatra might have worn…

There’s a legend that she believed so fervently in her perfume’s allure that she soaked the sails of her royal ship in it – so much, in fact, that Marc Antony could smell her coming all the way from shore when she visited him at Tarsus.

There’s got to be something in that: where there’s smoke there’s fire, eh?

Time Out, eh?

Time-outs to wring behavioural change from naughty children are all the rage nowadays. Everywhere you go there seem to be men sitting near their tantrum-laden little boys in the parking lots of stores, or women standing outside of cars fastidiously ignoring the screams of alternately pounding and pouting children confined within. Perhaps this has been going on for years, but only recently have I begun to notice the ritual. In fact, it seems so ubiquitous, that I am beginning to suspect a flaw in my own upbringing. I don’t remember being an easy child; maybe I just had easy parents. Or maybe the Encyclopedia Britannica of the age didn’t cover that aspect of childrearing.

It might be investigating the obvious, but I had to look it up at any rate. Time-outs are more acceptable attempts at behaviour modification than corporal punishment –spanking comes to mind- especially in public, where the difference between remonstration and child abuse is uncomfortably opaque. The idea of social exclusion was likely popularized in a paper by a Dr. Montrose Wolf at the University of Washington in the mid 60ies, drawing on the work by his mentor, Dr. Arthur Staats (who called it ‘time-out’).

But, unless you grew up in Winnipeg in the 1950ies, you might now regard time-outs as such an intuitively obvious way of treating both the child’s misbehaviour and the resultant parental frustration, that you would be forgiven for assuming it had been hard-wired in our DNA. Perhaps it was, but with variable penetrance, and probable mid-prairie epigenetic modification –anyway, there seem to be some issues with its application: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/time-outs-study-parenting-1.3888166

By default, I suppose I’m an educationally impoverished repository of doctrinal wisdom when it comes to children. As an obstetrician, for years -until my own arrived, at least- my responsibilities ended with handing the freshly-liberated, and usually screaming newborn to the mother, tidying things up, and then congratulating the smiling, emotionally overcome parents before I left the room. I didn’t expect to be confronted with any of their subsequent behavioural peccadillos. But, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra remarked, those were ‘my salad days, when I was green in judgment’.

Usually, I enjoy seeing children in the waiting room –they lend a kind of friendly family air to the office. Sometimes, however, there are things I need to discuss with the mother, procedures I need to perform, or even examinations that might alarm the child, so my enjoyment is often that of seeing the child stay in the waiting room. It’s not called that for nothing.

Clara was already a harried teenage mother of a two year old when I first met her several years ago, and I delivered three more for her in the following years. Now in her late twenties and recently divorced, she had been sent to see me for permanent birth control.

I heard the excited screaming even before I reached the front desk, and I have to admit that I hid behind a wall to assess the situation more fully before I ventured into the open. The first of the children I delivered -Edward, now around five- was stirring the pot by running around the room clutching a toy to his chest so the dauphin, despite the obvious entitlement of age, could not get it.

Clara’s long auburn hair, now partially liberated from whatever restraints she’d attempted at home, was hanging forlornly around her shoulders, while her eyes followed the action around the room like a hockey game. A large lady now, she sat uncomfortably on the edge of her seat, no doubt hoping to catch Edward and the toy if he was so unwise as to come anywhere near grabbing range. The youngest, still breast feeding, was the only one over whom she exercised even temporary dominion.

I glanced nervously around the room from the shelter of the alcove, hoping she had brought a friend or older family member with her, but Clara was the last patient of the day and the room was otherwise empty.

“Clara,” I said, face prepared, and hoping she hadn’t noticed me behind the wall. “Nice to see you again.”

The children immediately stopped running and flocked to my side to tug on my clothes. Jamie, the oldest, grabbed the toy from Edward, who was now too busy trying to reach my stethoscope to notice.

“I… I saw you… watching from the alcove, doctor,” Clara said, blushing a deep crimson because she almost said ‘hiding’. “I tried to get my sister to take care of the kids, but she had to work today…” She shrugged and reached out with lightning speed to grab Jamie’s arm before he could swat his brother. “You behave yourself, Jamie, or you’re gonna do a Time-out, eh?”

Jamie immediately akimboed his arms and made a face at his brother. “He grabbed my car…!”

Clara glared at him and frowned, but from the defiant face with which Jamie greeted the threat, I could see the battle lines hardening.

I glanced at my secretary sitting behind the front desk, but she was on the phone and I realized that I was on my own. “Let’s go into my office,” I said, with a worried look at the boys, and the little girl, Janice, who by now had decided that the way to recapture some attention was to stick her tongue out at Jamie. Only the baby seemed compliant, but that was probably because Clara was still nursing her.

My office, unfortunately, was not designed for children –there are simply too many things that could tip over or break if handled indelicately. On the way down the hall to the office, I even thought of getting my secretary to fake a call from the hospital requiring my immediate assistance, but she was still on the phone and merely winked at me as I passed. I got the impression she was just holding the receiver for show.

As soon as the troupe entered the office they began to explore, and Jamie, who had probably never seen pennies before, made a quick exploratory lunge for the penny bowl that sat in front of a terra cotta statue of a begging lady precariously balanced on a little oak table. Edward, on the other hand, was reaching for the carved wooden statue of a woman holding a child that I had put behind a plant on my desk, and Janice was trying to extract the contents of the shelf where I keep my medical journals. It was a multi-pronged attack worthy of an Alexander.

“I’m not sure this is going to work, doctor,” Clara said, trying unsuccessfully to reposition the baby onto a breast while glaring at all three of her children now crawling along the floor scooping pennies into their pockets.

I called my receptionist to come in with us. “Laura,” I said as she opened the door a crack and peeked in. “Please put the phone on hold, or something…  I need your help.” Actually, I needed a time-out.

I could feel Laura’s eyes rolling behind the door. She was the mother of three young children, so she knew what I was going to ask.

“I want you to take the kids and… occupy them for a few minutes while I talk to Clara.”

She shrugged, but I could tell from her face that she thought it might be an interesting challenge as she gathered the tribe -minus the now sleeping baby- and led it out of the door. The office felt so peaceful suddenly that Clara and I just looked at each other for a moment. I managed to gather a more complete history and when I opened the door to lead her across the hall to the examining room I could only hear quiet giggles.

Finally, after Clara and I had discussed her needs, we both tiptoed down the corridor to the waiting room. But it, too, was quiet except for Laura’s voice telling a story as the children sat around her in a little circle on the floor.

Each of them had a plastic speculum with a sticker face stuck on the top and when Laura asked a question, one of the children would make the speculum talk. They were loving it and didn’t even look up when we crossed the rug. But Laura did, her eyes glistening from quiet laughter.

Clara just stared at them, unable to speak.

Laura chuckled and then shrugged. “I gave each of them a choice of those little funny face stickers we always give to the kids and showed them how to attach them to the top of the speculum.” A contented sigh escaped as she watched them all talking quietly to each other through the specula. “From then on, it was just role playing…”

“How did you ever think of that, Laura?” I asked when they’d all left.

She shrugged again. “The specula have always reminded me of quidnuncs… you know, snoops -those who insist on sticking their noses in other people’s business.”

I had to sigh in admiration -Laura has a name for everything. I just hope she doesn’t expect me to name the specula now… But I looked up quidnunc just in case.