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Episode 46: Scents and sensibilities, featuring Michelle Krell Kydd

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Episode 46: Episode 46 — Scents and sensibilities, featuring Michelle Krell Kydd

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode of Listen in Michigan my guest is Michelle Krell Kydd, a writer also is a trained nose in flavors and fragrance. She describes her unusual ability for smelling as the olfactory version of a photographic memory.

Michelle has worked as a marketing consultant with perfumers and beauty companies, but her true passion lies in teaching others – especially teachers – how important the sense of smell can be in the learning experience – or experiential learning. Research shows learning happens most effectively when our senses – preferably all five — are actively engaged. Seems we remember things more vividly when we “experience” them, as opposed to being told about them.

Unfortunately, smell as a teaching tool rarely comes into play (at least on purpose) —  in the lecture hall, the computer lab, the library.

In 2012, Michelle created “Smell and Tell,” a series of interactive programs she presents  at the Ann Arbor District Library, 826 Michigan, and to private clients. As the name indicates, there’s lots of smelling and telling to be done, as she works with people and their noses to expand their understanding of the world and each other. Through smell.

This past year, she took her program virtual, and with funding from the State Department of Education, Michelle presented “Rite Smells” to Michigan educators who teach grades six-12. These teachers were in the Middle East and North Africa and Southeast Asia Teacher program. So they explored smells related to plants used in incense and perfumery from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, North Africa. Prior to the course, each teacher received a “scent flight” of eight aromatic essences in advance, and then, via Zoom, Michelle demonstrated how to transform the abstract nature of smell into articulated, lived experience. Teachers received lesson plans and other support tools to take lessons learned into their own classrooms.

Now that COVID has destroyed what we used to know as regular life, we are more aware of smell than ever. It is the sense the virus can take from us. And even though we KNOW this, smell is still the bastard stepchild of the senses and Michelle is on a mission to change that.

I’ll let her explain … Here’s Michelle.

Michelle Krell Kyyd: We breathe from the moment we come out of the womb, right? And when we go to sleep at night, we dream. So we see images in our head, but we don’t really hear anything unless there’s a loud noise that wakes us up out of bed, but we’re always breathing. If you close your eyes you can’t see, and if I stopped my nose in a certain amount of time, I’ll be dead, because I can’t breathe.

And COVID is a respiratory disease that takes your breath away. And I feel like, at the point we are in the pandemic now, I do not want to ever hear that “long-haul” syndrome is not something to be concerned about. Hospitalization and death are big things and we need to stop that now. But if you’re talking about protracted smell loss, some people not getting it back.

There is a way to help yourself get better. They’re not sure why it works or how well it works, but it’s the best we have. And it’s not nonmedical. And it’s pretty much what I teach people. It’s like olfactory calisthenics, but you do them with specific materials that you can vary. This has been going on since Dr. Thomas Hummel, who is the renowned expert on smell loss. He has been trying to help people recovering from upper respiratory infections — the kinds where, you know, there’s a possibility of getting better. His stuff is codified now. There are critics that are like, “Well, you know, it’s not totally proven,” but it does help.

His method makes sense. The philosophy is that if you stimulate smell, and you stimulate the brain, while doing that, even if you can’t smell, if things are in a state of repair, you can help yourself get better. And I think anyone who loses their sense of smell — I certainly would feel this way if it was me — would want control. I’d want control over the process, I’d want to know that there was hope. I would want to know that there were people like me, and that I wasn’t going out of my mind. Because just think, right? We are experiencing, what is it the five stages of grief? We have like the 500 stages of grief right now.

These are crazy times, right? This is like the ultimate irony is I’ve spent the last 10 years in our Ann Arbor telling people to value their sense of smell and then there’s a freaking pandemic

Holdship: As a person who suffers with chronic allergies and a stuffed-up nose more often than not, I definitely value my sense of smell – when I have it! But this conversation opened my eyes to some interesting applications of Michelle’s “smell and tell” concept. My dad, who passed away in 2018 had been a pipe smoker most of his life. He also loved cigars and chili and old spice cologne. As he began to suffer dementia, I bought him some old spice to see if it would spark him up. It sparked me, that’ for sure, as I flashed back to childhood, watching him slap his cheeks with the fragrant cologne! Now, listen in, as Michelle describes an unforgettable experience SHE had with a friend’s dying mother.

Kydd: Her mother was in a really nice assisted-living facility here in Ann Arbor. And she had stopped eating, so she was on her way to the next journey. And she said, “Michelle, I know you don’t know my mother, you know, this is the situation we’re in. She has Alzheimer’s, but could you make a smell kit for her?” And I said yes without thinking about it. But I did ask her some questions about her mother. Longer story I won’t tell but the end of it was, even though she couldn’t speak, her mother started to flip her foot up at a couple of the scents that were really poignant, according to her daughter.

This was moving, very moving experience. I made a kit for her to have. And she called me at around 9 that night and told me that her mother died that evening, and she couldn’t have had a better experience. And like, I got choked up, and I was thinking, oh my god, this is what like clergy must feel like when they’re called to go in a room, and maybe it’s someone they’ve never met before. And it is gonna sound weird because the feeling has so much sanctity around it, that even thought the sadness of it is not absent, but the sanctity overrides the sadness, even when I think about it, and I’m a bit verklempt.

But to meet someone, for the first time on the day that they leave is just profound. But to your point, as you were talking about wouldn’t have been nice to smell things with your father. You know, this woman has a smell kit now where she can remember things with her mother. So why don’t we do this with our elders, do this for ourselves? Because it’s like pictures in the mind. I mean, you actually store smell memories, sensory impressions in the place that holds pictures and images. So you do have pictures of smell in your brain, just not the way we think of photographs.

When you smell something, close your eyes, because your vision is an impediment to evaluating something. Not subjectively, but just evaluating it. And they start to see and feel and they’re freaking out. Like, they can’t believe that this has happened. And this is the magic, right? And you could do that with a cup of coffee. I don’t know, I have favorite places to go to downtown, cuz I just like to smell things.

Holdship: OK, think back to your time in Ann Arbor. You’re on the street — Did you have favorite smells in town? What about Scorekeepers – or SKEEPS as the students call it – with its dank cloud of vomit smell hanging low in the air around the Maynard Street Parking garage.  Kilwin’s never disappoints with its hot sugar smell. And how about that sizzling grease coming off the Fleetwood? Sometimes you have to walk INSIDE a building to smell it, like one of Michelle’s favorite spots, the Westside Book Shop on LibertyKydd: So first of all, you go in and it’s you know, it’s all the books, but in the back because it’s in this like old kind of Victorian brownstone building. There’s a back room of books, but it has maps and usually some vintage typewriter they’re selling. So it has a slightly different smell. But it also It feels like you’re on the set of The Twilight Zone and you’ve just stepped into reality from 1942. You know, it’s stunning. And then you could kind of even go back more like if you look at the art books, you can start to feel Victorian. These places are precious, but it’s often it’s not just what’s in them. It’s what you sense that actually makes you come back and also makes you enjoy being there.

Holdship: Our next stop on this sensory tour is the ice cream shop just down the street from Westside book shop. … The Creamery…

Kydd: When they make waffles inside and the door is closed, right? This is why you would want to do this now. But if you walk in and you’re there for at least two minutes while they’re in the waffle iron, you will walk out and your hair and your shirt will smell like waffles. I mean, it’s free perfume. Who doesn’t want that kind of nostalgia.

Please call Anyone can do this, because it’s really cool. And sometimes it happens by accident. So let’s say you’ve went shopping and you have a paper bag, and it starts to rain and you forgot your umbrella. And your paper bag gets wet. Right? You know what happens? There’s a molecule called Van Alen. That’s part of the paper processing process. Okay, and vanilin is used to make vanilla flavor for ice cream. It can be derived from trees or it can be synthetically created using chemistry. And the rain on the wet paper bag activates the vanilan. If you have a plain wet paper bag, just you know, squirt a little water and that’s nostalgia, it’s and that’s kind of an established smell, too, that goes back. You know, for generations of people who went to the University of Michigan, from before they were plastic bags, which was like, I guess before 75 or something like that, then that smell might be attached to some kind of nostalgia. There’s all these little things that we don’t often think of. But if it was a torrential downpour, like in the spring, and you were caught with a bag, you would remember it.

Holdship: At this point, I had to tell her one of MY favorite smells — the library, specifically my childhood library in Birmingham. As I described the smell to her, the only word that seemed to do it justice was “fluresent.” But is that a smell? It sounded so weird. Not to Michelle, though.

Kydd: This is the element we don’t see, right? Because this is my area of specialty is decoding the invisible right? So I’m always thinking about what no one’s noticing, because I’m just kind of wired that way. So there’s that and you’re walking into that vibe. And then there’s there’s the different ages of the books and and some pleasant smells, there are some smells that can be a little fusty and musty. And when you say fluorescent to me, I hear that word. And the meaning to me is like it’s the artificial light. Right? So then then that can go into areas that are just not as enjoyable but yet, it’s not horrible because you’re associating it with the library. It’s the context, right? Because a fluorescent light in a surgery is not the same as a fluorescent light in a library.

And remember, it’s surrounded by glass. There’s metal, there’s plastic. So there is a scent scape up inside the the light fixture that sort of comes out based on what kind of ventilation is there?

I also have made friends with someone who I just love to death who has a very specialized job at the university. I’ve, I’ve smelled scrolls. And she invited me to the Burr building where they actually do book restoration. And the whole floor smells like that “good” old-book smell, and I don’t want to leave. And that also makes your hair and your shirt smell. Can you imagine going to work and coming back smelling like a great old book? To me, that’s great. To them, they’re just like, “Ah, I’m so done with this already.”

I was allowed to go to the basement of the Kelsey Museum to smell mummies. And so that was an interesting experience.

Holdship: Yeah … I’ll pass on the mummy sniffing. What sounds more appealing is Michelle’s other favorite hotspot, a section of Washington Street during the dinner hour.

Kydd: This is a really dangerous thing for vegetarians. And I’ll tell you why. I say it’s dangerous for vegetarians because you will start salivating. The minute you hit that street at five o’clock because they’re prepping stuff in the kitchen. There’s grilling going on. There’s several episodes — again, I’m dating myself, but what the heck? — Bugs Bunny, right?, when he smells a carrot, but he can’t see it and he starts floating and there’s this little cloud of carrot smell, right? You start doing that thinking like, “Where’s the hamburger? I really need a steak now.” And I would usually get out of work around 5:30, a quarter to six. So I would hit that street at six, which was like peak because people are starting to go in. But anytime between five and seven, I could be blindfolded and I can tell you where I was.

I mean, there’s, there’s always a meat surprise. I’m sorry, vegetarians.

There’s a word for what you just described in terms of, you know, when certain senses are situated in the environment, we call it a scent scape. That’s the academic term for it, but it’s or smell scape.

Please The most traumatic thing that ever happened to me and it was related to a smell. My father-in-law shot a snake, and you smelled the hot shot and the snake after it got killed. And that was like I don’t ever like I’m glad the snake is dead. But I just don’t want to smell that again.

Since our sense of smell is designed to detect pleasure and danger, usually the smells that we don’t like can sometimes trip up that danger thing. And of course, the smell of burning flesh from shot in a snake: that’s death before decomposition. So of course, I’m not going to like that, right?

But there are certain things, like there are foods that smell horrible, that taste great, i.e., certain French cheeses that smell like, you know, overripe sneakers in a gym locker that hasn’t been open for 100 years. So you know, like that. Yeah, you can’t get past that. And that is really your brain saying, “Danger, danger,” you know? And you have to kind of talk your way through it, if you decide, you know, you’re gonna have a piece of that stinky cheese. 🧀

Holdship: How funny that stinky cheese can bring people together! For years, Michelle has sought to use scent as a way to overcome our differences and find what connects us. Her virtual “Right Smells” program confirmed what she already knew. Once people start smelling things together, the world opens up.

Kydd: You know, I’ve been wanting to teach teachers. I mean, since I was trained in the fragrance industry, so that’s going back to like 20 22,001 2002 And I’ve loved the community that sharing sensory impressions and emotions and memories built.

Do I know more about this person now? Because you learn about each other. This is the community-building aspect.

The thing you have to teach people, when they’re going to use sense, and they’re going to be evaluative is that there are no wrong answers. And that really up-ends the whole academic life approach that you have to be right, you have to get it. It’s not about that. And it’s not about not having emotion about something, but it’s just about seeing what something is. And since smells can be related to food, right, then we get cultural relationships. We had a few history teachers that were at that “Smell and Tell” that immediately got, “Oh my God, I can teach you about the spice trade. I don’t have to buy, you know, fancy essential oils, I can just get spices.” And so they kind of woke up that way. And again, this is something it’s literally right in front of our noses, but we don’t see it.

I mean, it’s fascinating to see group behavior and how they evolve towards talking about something they can’t see that they’re sensing. But what’s more fascinating is when they discuss their memories and the community-building aspect happens when people have had a common experience, like say, for instance with a rose, right? They think about grandmothers not because it smells like an old lady, it’s fresh, but they just associate it with grandmother. So all of a sudden, these boundaries, right, which can be gender, can be race, can be, you know, culture, you know, sexual, all these things, you know, these, you know, things that we look for? We stop looking for them. And we just start being present for what’s there and the common humanity.

So that being said what it could do in classrooms is it creates confidence in dealing with unknowns and things you can’t see. For learning, I’m going to remember more As a kindergartener or a sophomore in college, if there is cinnamon in front of me when someone is talking about the spice trade, because I’m actually going to be putting that layer, that that picture of a smell in my mind of an experience, versus being taught something, right? So it’s experiential learning. And this goes into the whole Goethe philosophy of not skimming the surface of a thing, but looking into it. This is what scientists do. Hello, if you’re an anthropologist or an archaeologist, you’re digging, and you’re looking: What’s there, what’s there? And we’ve lost that because we’ve become a culture of gazers, because of our cell phones and the internet. And I’m not anti-Internet. It’s just that we’re doing this way more than we’re doing it not that way. And so, getting students when they’re young interested in smell — it’s just like music. It opens them up to nonvisual experiences that are just as valuable, if not more sometimes, than seeing something. I think smell brings concepts to life. So anyone who has an area of specialty and they’re you know, they’re deep in pedagogy, they need to look for those things. And actually, they probably could find them, right where they live or in their classroom.

When you look into something, instead of skimming the surface, you just realize how magnificent The world is. And like, who doesn’t want to have some of that now, when we feel like everything’s falling apart?

Holdship: All I can say to that is: Preach, sister. Next time you smell something that captivates you, close your eyes and let your mind go there. At the very least, stop and smell the roses would ya? Grandma needs a shoutout. Thanks for listening. See you next time, and as always, GO BLUE.

The nose knows

In the realm of pedagogy, education experts often tout the benefits of hands-on learning. But for Michelle Krell Kydd, that simplistic term falls short. If she had her way, the experts also would be pushing “nose-on learning.”

Kydd contends that getting students interested in smell is like getting them interested in music. It opens them to nonvisual experiences that are just as valuable, if not more valuable sometimes, than visual ones.

“Smell brings concepts to life,” she says. “As a kindergartener or sophomore in college, if you put cinnamon in front of me when talking about the spice trade, I’m going to put that picture of a smell in my mind with an experience, versus being taught something.”

Gee, you smell terrific

Michelle Krell Kydd

Michelle Krell Kydd

Kydd received her training as a professional nose at Givaudan, a Swiss multinational manufacturer of flavors, fragrances, and active cosmetic ingredients. She also attended New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. After years working as a marketing consultant in the beauty and fragrance industry, she turned her focus toward the role of smell in education and began presenting interactive “Smell and Tell” events at the Ann Arbor District Library, 826 Michigan, the University of Michigan, and elsewhere.

She’s written the blog “Glass, Petal, Smoke” since 2007, hoping to inspire readers to explore “this magnificent world” with every tool at their disposal. (One can learn a lot by following her lively and informative Twitter account.) In 2015, Kydd presented the TedxUofM Talk, “Secrets from a Trained Nose.”

“If you’re an anthropologist or an archaeologist, you’re always digging,” she says. “But we’ve lost that ability. We’ve become a culture of gazers due to our cell phones and the Internet.”

That said, the Internet does play a role in Kydd’s evolving educational scentscape.

Rite Smells

In June, she presented her third U-M Zoom class, “Rite Smells,” and was surprised how effectively the online format supported her interactive program for teachers. She created the workshop for the University’s MENA-SEA Teacher Program, supported by a Title VI Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The workshop targeted Michigan teachers working with students in grades 6-12. Attendees received a pre-course flight of eight anonymized scents by mail that represented a sensory exploration of the historic routes of trade from the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea.

Teachers shared their impressions, memories, and feelings with one another about the various scents they experienced and how they planned to use them in their lesson plans. By the end of the day, participants had tools to integrate sensory experiences in the classroom into articulated lived experiences.

“It’s fascinating to witness group behavior and how participants’ responses evolve when they’re talking about something that is sensed rather than seen,” Kydd says. “But it’s more fascinating when they discuss their scent memories. Boundaries dissolve because participants are immersed in each other’s sensory evaluations. They are fully present for what an anonymized scent evokes and experience the joy of discovery in their common humanity.”

The COVID curse

Imagine Kydd’s despair when COVID-19 hit the globe. The virus kills by literally taking your breath away. Many survivors experience a loss of smell, a fate Kydd cannot fathom.

“This is like the ultimate irony,” she says. “I’ve spent the last 10 years in Ann Arbor telling people to value their sense of smell and then there’s a pandemic that includes smell loss [anosmia] as a short- and long-term symptom.”

Sometimes Kydd receives calls from people who fear they’ve suffered permanent loss of smell. She points them to the work of Dr. Thomas Hummel, of the Smell & Taste Clinic in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at Germany’s Dresden University.

Hummel’s smell training techniques are supported by research and are similar to the professional sensory evaluation techniques Kydd teaches at Smell & Tell classes.

“I call it olfactory calisthenics,” she says. “Hummel’s findings across time suggest that if things are in a state of repair, you can stimulate the sense of smell (even in you can’t smell), which stimulates the brain, and you can help yourself get better,” she says.

In this podcast, Kydd’s passion for sharing the wonders of smell is palpable. She takes us on a tour of her favorite scentscapes in Ann Arbor and explains the way smell works on our brains, especially when it comes to nostalgia. Maybe it’s the smell of a wet paper bag in 1960 as you sheltered from the rain after eating a pecan roll at Drake’s. Or the acrid smell of Scorekeeper’s in 2010 as you staggered past the Maynard Street parking garage after last call.

Just close your eyes and inhale, Kydd suggests. That’s when the magic happens.

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