Random Rants, Raves and Ramblings

It's the Smell, Stupid!

Let me start by giving away a most intimate bit of information about myself. I'm white. That's caucasian in politically correct lingo, but I'm afraid political correctness, as usual, is low on fact. I'm not a caucasian. My roots are firmly in western Europe.

My former love is an African, and all indicates my future love will be African too. Why that should be the case only became clear this afternoon as I walked into town to buy groceries. I walked past a Congolese family who were getting into their car and I felt suddenly yanked back into time, straight into the arms of my love. Sights don't have that effect. Smells do.

Let's be clear about this. People from different corners of the planet don't look alike. We also don't all smell the same. Since one doesn't normally notice one's own smell, only the body odour of people of other colours will actually register. Ask people from an African village who have just a few whites living amongst them.

We're wired to associate novel sensory stimuli with salient events that happen around the same time. It's good evolutionary kharma. It takes us to where the good food is, and keeps us away from danger. If there's one sense that is particularly powerful in that respect, it's our olfactory sense. The oldest of them all, smell is more capable than sight or sound of triggering forgotten memories and emotions. Especially emotions. Fear. Hunger. Happiness. Lust. I can't be the only person who gets turned on by the smell of chlorine. Before the 90's, European schoolchildren who went swimming, changed in communal change rooms (they still do in Eastern Europe). For my entire adolescence, my only experience of seeing people naked was in the change room of the swimming pool.

But I digress.

So it is that anyone who has been happy with someone of a very different ethnicity will link the novel olfactory experience to this happiness, and would need a lot of dissuasion to wipe away that association. And this is why they say, once you go black, you can't go back. It's in the genes baby.

Romantics can get terribly worked up about science's apparent reduction of love to the interactions of neurons and chemicals. Yet, if you really think there's more to it, read up on cognitive dissonance, and how our brains constantly cook up the flimsiest of stories post hoc and on the spot to glue our disparate actions and temperaments together into an illusion of a single executive "self".

Humans are best described as an unconscious collection of automata onto which Microsoft has patched a consciousness module, with cognitive dissonance reduction added as a major bug fix in service pack 2.

I can't help seeing it as anything but liberating. The current ideal of romantic love consisting of the perfect emotional and intellectual match between two people who fall in love at first sight is, politely put, rather taxing. It overestimates the amount of deliberation available when falling in love, and underestimates our ability to adjust emotionally to a choice that's made intellectually.

Sunday 16 October 2011