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22nd July

The battle between my brain and me

I like to spray on a bit of cologne in the mornings, not so much to please others but because the smell of wood sage and sea salt is a pleasurable companion during the day. On other days, when I need to make public appearances, the scent of oud and bergamot wraps me in a protective veil, not unlike the favorite jacket I like to wear on those occasions. In fact, I even wear that scent during important Zoom meetings.


But after a couple of minutes the smell evaporates, and with it goes the enjoyment or the defensive power it carried.


The other day, on the website of a niche parfumier I read an explanation: When the brain recognizes a scent as not dangerous it no longer spends any more attention on it.


I wondered what other experiences I miss out on because my brain has decided it's not worth paying attention to. Are there pleasant smells other than my colognes that I do not perceive, strange and wonderful colors I do not see, subtle signals given out by people I do not detect? What particularly disconcerts me is that my brain takes these decisions without consulting me.


Then again, who is the I that wants to have a say? Doesn’t the sense of self stem from the brain? But it feels as if there are two of us: the me who tries in vain to convince my brain to allow me to smell the wood sage and sea salt and the brain who completely ignores those pleas.

I tried to trick my brain by wearing different colognes intermittently, hoping that it would be put off guard by the sheer variety. One day I would spray on an orange and sandalwood scent, the next day fig infusion, then intense vetiver followed by lime basil and mandarin. But after I’d worn each of these scents a couple of times, their smells vanished into this big and alluring venue that my brain, like an invisible bouncer, denies me access to. 


So just as when I was a young boy cloistered in my room there’s only one thing left for me to do: use my imagination. Qualia like smell and taste cannot be fully imagined, they can only be experienced. But I can think of a Provencal field with sunflowers when I walk our dog Lucy through the streets of Barcelona, or I can see the glittering blue expanse of the Mediterranean when I stand in front of an audience. I can build an experience in my mind—and choose to pay attention to that.


No one can take my fantasies away from me, not even my own brain.  

Han Nefkens will take a break in August

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