Page three of Dogs and Puppies by Funfax (the dog-shaped book below) reads, in its entirety, “Sniffing around. Sniff, sniff! Dogs have a better sense of smell than you or I. [sic] They can easily pick up the trail of an animal.”
Ill-written … and not even true.
Not that I blame the good people at Funfax for the factual inaccuracy. Humans have long imagined stark barriers separating ourselves from other animal species. For political reasons, both neuroanatomist Paul Broca and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud claimed that the human sense of smell atrophied in order for us to have free will. These claims were untested. John P. McGann wrote in his recent Science review article that:
Freud and Broca thus provided a pseudoscientific gloss on the idea that smell operates in opposition to a disembodied rationality that makes humans civilized and distinct from other mammals.
Indeed, humans have approximately the same number of brain cells devoted to smell as other mammals. And, when researchers actually measured the concentrations of various chemicals that can be detected, they found that different species are best at recognizing each smell. Humans included: we’re better at smelling certain odors than mice or dogs are. (We’re very good at smelling human blood.)
When humans crouch to the ground, we too can “sniff, sniff!” – researchers found that most people can “easily pick up the trail of an animal.” Smell is also a major component of our non-verbal communication: odors can be powerful signals of trauma, stress, or aggression.
People are generally in dire emotional straights when they’re locked up. And incarceration makes shakes them further. Inside a jail, they’re surrounded by stress-inducing odors.
Our local jail often smells bad. Which is distinct from – but might exacerbate – the way certain odors can trigger negative emotional states. While being ushered into class, we’ve watched the bescumbered glass of the drunk tank being hosed off, foul discolored water seeping from beneath the door. We’ve coughed through the hall after a topless, raving woman was pepper-sprayed and tackled (one of our students reported, “She was all covered in shit, but those were the first tits I’ve seen in eighteen years. Guards know she shouldn’t be here, she should be in a fucking hospital.”) And even in the best of circumstances, we’re breathing recycled air inhabited by hundreds of suffering men and women cut off from their usual routines. Bob Barker’s (complimentary, unless someone puts money on your books, at which point you’re retroactively billed) soap isn’t enough.
Before teaching in jail, each week John-Michael would spritz himself with a different perfume. John-Michael is a highly empathetic poet – I’d been teaching in that space for a year without considering how much the guys might appreciate the chance to smell something nice.
There are people who probably shouldn’t be out on the streets. But most who spend time in jail will eventually be released. We should want them to heal while they are inside. A whiff of perfume might be enough for somebody to relax. To breath easy again, just for a moment, and think about what needs to be done.
Midwives recommend that a birthing room be spritzed with calming scents. Lavender, perhaps. John-Michael’s assortment of perfumes helped the men feel that our class was a safe place.
Eventually, the jail commander noticed. He has now requested that volunteers not wear perfume of any kind.