Day 4 explores “bliss” captured through a photograph. Some definitions first.
Bliss: (n) complete happiness, great joy, paradise, or heaven.
Happiness: (n) feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
Joy: (n) a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.
Paradise: (n) an ideal or idyllic (extremely happy, peaceful or picturesque) place or state.
Heaven: (n) a place, state, or experience of supreme bliss.
It was easy to think of the subject: the experience of my infant daughter. One aspect of this experience rises above the rest in its powerful almost coma-inducing bliss: her scent. How do I translate that into a photograph? How do I translate her delicious and unique scent (my son’s baby scent was a completely different flavor of knockout bliss) when she is just waking up in the morning and she is a little hot and sweaty.
In his 2009 paper “Chemical Communication and Mother Infant Recognition,” Stefano Vaglio explores the role pheromone-like chemical signals play in offspring identification and mother recognition. He starts with the basic tenet that mutual recognition amongst organisms of the same species is a basic requirement in further interaction. The parent-child bond is established through smell (I extrapolate). Vaglio recounts that:
Some researchers even doubted that humans could have their behavior altered by something as simple as instinctive reaction to smell . . . Formerly, it was widely held that the human vomeronasal organ was vestigial and the existence of pheromonal communication in humans was contested.
Although the experience of smelling my infant is so powerful as to border on being an illegal mood-altering drug, part of my brain feels grateful that I was not an early human who struggled to create language, like joy, happiness, pleasure, bliss. None of these words are thought to be part of the first two handfuls of words used by humans, though “nose” or “smell” were.
The widely held concept is that the baby smell activates our VTA dopamine system (the pleasure or reward center in our brains) to encourage us to keep coming back for more of the sheer physical punishment entailed in caring for an infant. My son lost his baby smell around the age of 3 ½, right around the time he stopped needing me up in his business quite as much. It is not just mothers either. In “The Brains of our Fathers: Does Parenting Rewire Dads?” Brian Mossop eloquently writes that “animal studies show that a father’s brain is significantly and beautifully intertwined with his offspring’s.” The animal studies were on dengu rats, a co-parenting species. The dad’s connection to his offspring was contingent upon an active presence in the nest and exposure to the little ones’ intoxicating scent.
It is thought that “dopamine is released . . . as a result of rewarding experiences such as food, sex or neutral external stimuli that become associated with them.” However, it has been found that dopamine is also released in response to pain, so researchers have sought to expand the understanding of what releases dopamine. The “reward prediction error” theory posits that:
Dopamine does not encode reward itself but the degree to which reward is surprising . . . Rewards that are expected do not produce any activation of dopamine cells, but rewards that are greater than expected produce a short-acting increase in dopamine. . .
That is part of the magic of baby smell. We cannot fathom that they could smell so good. We continue to smell them again and again. We are sure that like most other things, the intensity of the wonderful-ness of the smell must surely decrease or go away altogether. But, it doesn’t! And, our dopamine just pumps and pumps all the meanwhile.