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Chemical Reaction: Learning to Smell

By: Steve Herman
Posted: June 9, 2008, from the June 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

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“Scents are like fashion—the beauty is not intrinsic in the odor. It’s in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, the nose of the beholder.”

—Richard Doherty

A soccer ball rolls across a field. Trees in the background sway in the mounting breeze that propels the low lying clouds overhead. You see it all, and are not befuddled by the millions of bits of sensory information entering your eye because processing miracles are functioning deep in your brain. The rolling soccer ball presents a constantly changing pattern, but remains clearly a soccer ball to us. The leaves in the trees keep changing shape in the breeze, and the color varies constantly as shadows play upon them, but they remain clearly the same leaves of the same colors in the same trees.

Objects recognizable yet visually impacted by movement or altered lighting are illustrated wonderfully in the paintings of Claude Monet. He often took a single subject—the Houses of Parliament, Rouen Cathedral, the ponds of Giverny—and painted them repeatedly in different light to show how details changed. A canvas had to be replaced every few minutes as the sun and clouds impacted the artist’s subjects. In this way, Monet was able to isolate and capture what our brain automatically merges into a single, unchanging object.