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Rachel Herz: “I Created the Illusion of a Completely Different Scent…with Words Alone.”

Rachel Herz: “I Created the Illusion of a Completely Different Scent…with Words Alone.”

Interview: Rachel Herz

Dr. Rachel Herz is a neuroscientist and leading world expert on the psychological science of smell. She has been conducting research on the sense of smell, emotion, perception, motivated behavior and cognition since 1990. She is a TEDx speaker, has published over 85 original research papers, received numerous awards and grants, and co-authored scholarly handbooks. She is also on the faculty at Brown University and Boston College.

Her books include The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell (Amazon, Bookshop), That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion (Amazon, Bookshop), and most recently, Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food (Amazon, Bookshop).

Because of my interest in the five senses, I've read each of those books—they all dive into subjects that fascinate me—and I couldn't wait to talk to Rachel about happiness, good habits, and the five senses.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Rachel: Walking outdoors always makes me feel better. I am lucky to live in an area with lots of pretty houses, water, and woods, though the absence of sidewalks and the presence of speeding cars means that getting completely lost in a reverie can be treacherous. Nevertheless, walking for at least 20 minutes with the fresh air on my face and letting my thoughts wander invariably answers the moment’s need, whether it be trying to feel a little happier and healthier, finding inspiration for writing creatively, or solving a scientific problem. 

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I have learned over time to trust that things will get better with time. In my mid-30s I read Alistair MacLeod’s wonderful book No Great Mischief (Amazon, Bookshop) and a phrase of wisdom that has stuck with me ever since and that I have found to be surprisingly true is (and I paraphrase) that everything gets better with time, except a pebble in your shoe. Trusting that no matter how bad things seem, the pain/confusion/anxiety/sadness will eventually lessen, and that I can say “at least X… isn’t also happening” makes the current ordeal a little less upsetting and distressing, and reassures me that I will be happy again.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most? 

My favorite experimental result, because it was so surprising, easy to observe, and has had a big impact in my field, is that language can create illusions in our perception of scents. In my original experiment, I used five “ambiguous” scents— scents that could potentially be more than one thing, and have both negative and positive possible connotations—and I presented these scents to people with opposing labels such as “parmesan cheese” or “vomit.” Participants in the experiment sniffed at white cotton that had taken on the odor of the various mixtures that represented the ambiguous scents (there was never a “real thing”), and then responded to the scent they thought they were smelling. First, perhaps not so surprisingly, people said they would do entirely different things with what they were sniffing as a function of the label I had supplied, such as “eat it” or “run out of the room” and that they “loved” or “hated” what they were smelling because of the label. But most intriguingly, almost no one would believe me when I told them that they were smelling the exact same scent in each instance. Nearly everyone said that there was “no way” they could be smelling the same scent. But it was exactly the same. All I had done was change the way I described it. Like a magician with words in my hat instead of a bunny I had created the illusion of a completely different scent, and I had done it with words alone.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I just took the quiz and I’m a “Questioner.” I didn’t know anything about the quiz before I took it, and I’m happy to get this result. I believe it to be true and it makes sense with my being a scientist.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Traveling is the worst for me in terms of keeping healthy habits. Whether for work or pleasure my exercise routine usually ceases and my eating routine becomes totally hedonistic when I am away from home. Fortunately, my excursions usually don’t last longer than a week. Also, and I think this is important, I can appreciate the pleasure that I’m experiencing during my reckless abandon, and know that when I return I will get back to stricter self-care. This in itself is mindful, which is a healthy approach. The difficulties can come in when travel is longer than a week. If this is the case, I find it much harder to revert to healthier ways, especially vigorous exercise, and really have to force myself back into a healthy routine.

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Amazon, Bookshop) had a pivotal and profound impact on me when I first read it and even more so when I re-read it. It inspired in me a fundamental philosophy of life and gave me a cosmic understanding of my connection to the universe, which has made me feel less ultimately alone and finite—and thus happier.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

I really want people to know that when we talk about how food “tastes,” we almost always mean “flavor”, and flavor comes from our nose, not our tongue. We say “taste” because the food is in our mouth, but what is primarily producing the exquisite sensation from eating a fresh peach is coming from our nose. What we perceive through our sense of taste is just salt, sour, sweet, bitter (and if you want to include it) umami. Everything else we perceive when we eat is due to aroma, which gets to our nose through a small opening at the back of our mouth. The flavor of bacon is due to the aroma of bacon when we’re munching on a strip. The taste of bacon is just salt. Likewise, the flavor of a peach is due to its aroma—the taste is simply sweet with a touch of sour bite. You probably already know this if you’ve ever been really congested while eating and find that food “tastes” like nothing. This is because your nose is blocked and the aroma molecules from the soufflé in your mouth can’t get to your nose. This is why people who have lost their sense of smell have great difficulties with food experiences. Ultimately it is our brain that makes flavor. Our brain knits together the sensations of smell from our nose and taste on our tongue and produces our experience of food flavor. 

I want to shine a spotlight on anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention.

When you’re not in state of physical hunger, the simplest, most useful thing I learned while working on my most recent book Why You Eat What You Eat is that to have a happier and healthier relationship with food, all you need to do is balance the equation of: pleasure from eating something indulgent with the outcome you want to avoid. So, for example, with every bite of decadent chocolate cake I ask myself: “is the pleasure ‘in’ worth (or worthy of) the consequence ‘out’?” For the first several bites the answer is invariably “yes,” but as I continue to eat the balance begins to tip negatively and when it does, I stop. By engaging in this brief self-questioning we are more in the moment and thus getting more from the experience of the delicious food. Most importantly, we are able to eat anything we want and we learn to trust ourselves that we won’t have regrets. [From Gretchen: Spoken like a true Moderator!]

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