The Scent Threshold

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

doorway in Morocco

Doorways of Forgetfulness

I’m sure you have had this experience: you’re sitting at your desk when you catch sight of something that needs attention, let’s say a plant that needs watering. So you walk to the kitchen, but when you get there, suddenly your mind is blank. You can’t remember what you were there to do. Then you walk back to your desk and see the plant, sigh, and head back to the kitchen. 

It’s almost too poetic to be a real scientific fact: doorways cause us to forget. But there is research to suggest this effect is real. By passing into a different physical space, we pass into a different mental space, leaving behind one chamber of memory and entering another. Technically, what researchers think is happening is that our brains preserve a certain amount of space for contextual memory, holding information likely to be relevant to us in that context. Passing through a doorway suggests that we’re entering a different context, triggering a purge of short-term memory, freeing us space to remember things that might be relevant in this new space. 

Hasn’t it always been tempting to think of the mind as a house, a place we can inhabit? High-minded hermits live in mountaintop huts. Thoreau built a porous cabin on the edge of nature to free his mind from convention. We cache our memories in the attic, boxes of old photos and letters secure in case we might need to call on them. The basement contains our doubts and fears, the closet our deepest secrets. Decluttering the house, as Marie Kondo tells us, clears an overburdened mind. That the terra incognita of our minds might have some parallel in the graspable, traversable universe is comforting. Walking through our thoughts, they feel less filmy, less able to just slip away. 

A Threshold to a New Mind

Instead of thinking this geographic forgetfulness a problem, I wonder what it might be like to see it as a virtue. Enter your home and shed the dross of the outside world. Walk into a house of worship and the spiritual chases out the menial. Recently we had a friend over who sparked a discussion on the concept of thresholds. He reminded me the landscape is full of them — an arch of tree branches, a change in ground cover, even stepping over a twig can be traversing a border between one world and another. 

We can have a new mind whenever we choose, just by moving around. I’ve been trying actively to notice the thresholds in my midst, and relish the change in mental state that comes with a change of scenery. Having the slate regularly wiped clean allows for a more receptive experience of the world, a mind that moves less by brute force than the natural energy of the atmosphere. 

But what if a threshold is unavailable where you need one? What if you work in an open plan office, or like me, live in a loft-style space where no door exists between eating-working-lounging-exercising? There’s a more serious issue, too, which is the way that digital space interacts with physical space. The digital overlay on our world creates a lot of blurry borderlands where venturing from work to shopping to social media to email and back to work can happen in the course of a few minutes, without you ever getting up from your chair. How to define a threshold in this Wild West? 

Creating Your Own Thresholds

What I notice as I pass through various thresholds is that the transition from place to place is not just geographical, it’s sensorial. The temperature is different in the bedroom and the living room. The sound of the café is different from the street. So, I wondered, perhaps I could anchor my boundary-less workspace by creating a threshold with scent. 

I’ve started keeping a bottle of essential oils on my desk. (It is this one, if you’re curious.) I don’t use it when I’m sitting down at my desk to putter, clear my inbox, or look through photos. I open the bottle only when I’m ready to sit down to serious writing. I put a few drops in my hands and inhale deeply, trying to cross through the line of that aroma into a place where the unanswered emails and the looming errands can’t follow me. 

I don’t think scent is the only way to do this, but it’s a powerful one. Scent is one of the senses closest to memory. A whiff of cologne blowing on a breeze can jolt you right back to high school in under a second. Smell seems to bring with it other sensory impressions — music, textures, colors — building walls out of thin air. And it doesn’t need to be a “focus threshold” either. I quite like the idea of the opposite: a “joy threshold” you pass through on weekends, or when the work is done for the day. (Wine seems to be this threshold, for some!) Outfits can be thresholds too, I think: putting on certain clothes marks a transition that you actually inhabit. All it needs to be, I suppose, is some sensorial trigger that moves your mind from one space to another. I’m already on the lookout for another scent to transition me back out of the depths of writing, to bring me back at the end of the day to my more social mind. 

Have you ever created a threshold for yourself? How did you do it?
Image: Darrell Chaddock
October 28th, 2016


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