ARUN RATH, HOST:
Take a moment and inhale with me. What do you smell? Does that smell evoke an emotion or a memory? Our sense of smell is a powerful trigger that captivates both scientists and a burgeoning subculture here in Los Angeles. Reporter Chloe Prasinos takes us inside.
CHLOE PRASINOS, BYLINE: Scent Bar in central Los Angeles is home to about 700 niche fragrances - perfumes that you can't find in department stores. It looks more like an art gallery than a pub, but Scent Bar has its regulars, just like any bar.
What is your full name?
MARK MILLER: Mark "Fightshark" Miller.
PRASINOS: Yeah, you heard right, Mark "Fightshark" Miller. He was a professional mixed martial arts fighter for 22 years. He's covered in tattoos. His nails are painted red and he has a kind of grizzly, weathered air about him. And he loves perfume.
MILLER: My collection is ridiculous, yes.
PRASINOS: How many bottles?
MILLER: Forty or 50. I gave up, you know, drinking and drugs, so I have many other vices now. (Laughter).
PRASINOS: Steve Gontarski, the manager of Scent Bar, says that you can't predict who will become obsessed by smell.
STEVE GONTARSKI: There are not more women than men. I'd say it's balanced. In fact, the hard-core regulars - we have more men. It's not gay or straight. It's not professional versus working. What unites everyone is this hard-core fascination with scent.
PRASINOS: Amanda Wallace comes to Scent Bar a few times a month, which is an expensive habit to have. The average bottle of perfume costs about $150, but they range from $45 and go all the way up to about one grand.
AMANDA WALLACE: We spend so much money on this stuff. You know, but it's a great world to be in. It takes me very fun places in my mind.
GONTARSKI: It's not functional. It's fantasy.
PRASINOS: Gontarski says that when he wears perfume, he feels like a different person.
GONTARSKI: I think a good scent transports you. And all the magic is kind of invisible.
PRASINOS: Across town, at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, amateur perfumers learn to mix magic themselves. I went to an open session where a few rookie perfumers sat huddled over a long stainless steel table, delicately dipping pipettes into small vials of fragrances, trying to create their own blends.
SASKIA WILSON-BROWN: Exactly. So you go like, OK, 10 drops of cactus flower, 3 drops of galbanum. Write it down. That's your recipe.
PRASINOS: That's Saskia Wilson-Brown. She opened the Institute for people who wanted to experiment with scent but didn't know where to start. The perfume industry is a difficult one to break into, full of trade secrets and closed doors. Historically, you had to be born into a French perfuming family and deemed a nose in order to work with perfume. But the Institute has an open door policy.
WILSON-BROWN: Why shouldn't some kid from East LA have access to these things? It's science and it's our human right to like work with scent.
PRASINOS: And she's realized people react to the same scent in very different ways.
WILSON-BROWN: There is this sort of personal filter that everyone places on scent that goes through memories, that goes through culture. There's all these filters that people bring to scent that make it very hard to find a common language in perfumery.
PRASINOS: When I asked people to describe different perfumes, I got answers like this.
WALLACE: It's like when I was a little girl - the bad strawberry candy.
DAN: If I smell it, I picture myself in a proper Englishman's adventurers club sitting in a large leather chair.
SHELBY JONES: It smells like the garden district in New Orleans after a really heavy rainstorm when everything's kind of a little bit rotting but also a little bit blooming. That's what it smells like.
PRASINOS: There's a physiological reason that smells can jog such vivid associations. Avery Gilbert is a smell scientist and author of the book "What The Nose Knows."
AVERY GILBERT: Every other sense, the information has to take a detour through the thalamus to reach the cerebral cortex. And smell has a privileged fast lane right to the cortex.
PRASINOS: Via this fast lane, smell reaches two centers in the brain that are critical for making memories and emotion - the amygdala and the hippocampus.
GILBERT: Right away, even just by the sheer wiring diagram of smell, we're talking about emotion and memory.
PRASINOS: You've probably experienced what Gilbert refers to as an odor flashback memory - a stark, detailed memory triggered instantaneously by some unexpected smell. We don't remember smells the way we struggle to memorize a phone number or someone's name. The brain records smell in the background, so to speak.
GILBERT: And then years later, when that smell triggers those associations and it pops back up, it seems very magical, because we don't remember trying to remember.
PRASINOS: According to Gilbert, olfactory flashbacks are often heavy with emotion, specifically nostalgia.
GILBERT: For me once, it was passing a garage that was full of solvents and oils and stuff, and instantly I was transported back to my grandfather's workshop in his garage. And, you know, it was 15 years earlier. It was full of the memories of him, of the mood and everything else. I could remember details in great visual vividness.
PRASINOS: But when you smell something that takes you back, the original scent is usually far away.
GILBERT: It's either years in the past or miles and miles away. And so a smell brings a kind of wistful absence, even as it evokes this very full memory.
PRASINOS: And so the men and women of LA's perfume community are not just eccentrics, indulging in luxury. They're coloring their days with scent, intentionally creating olfactory snapshots of a time and place. For NPR News, I'm Chloe Prasinos.
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