The Power of Association

In our earlier post ‘The Eroticism of Odor‘, we looked at the strange (to us) custom of other cultures to actually prefer the smell of body odor, especially that of the opposite sex. We saw how it was typical for a woman to put apple pieces under her arm and, after it had absorbed her scent, offer it as a gift to her boyfriend.

There’s a good reason why other societies have felt like this about BO and why we don’t, and it gives us insight into an important feature of the human brain that we will be discussing in a series of posts over the next few months.

The reason has to do with the power of associations. Having largely banished body odor from Western society, we now associate the body’s natural smell with uncleanness and lack of hygiene. But put yourself back in Elizabethan times. In their pre-deodorant society, the smell of the body was normal, because that is what they were used to. Moreover, it could even be pleasant because that was the smell you associated with being in the presence of the person you love.

Don’t worry, this is not a plea for a new naturalism. I am not about to embark on a campaign to eliminate deodorant from our society. However, I mentioned the above facts because it leads into a theme I wish to spend some time unpacking, which is the power associations have in ordering our brains.

Put simply, if certain things are associated with pleasant or unpleasant experiences, then those things can actually become pleasant or unpleasant to our brains through the power of association.

Even today there are more subtle body odors that can only be perceived if we are in close proximity with a naked member of the opposite sex, which means that such odors tend to be associated with sex—an association that renders certain smells pleasant to us because of the power of association, though this process usually happens on an instinctive level far beneath the conscious mind.

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