What does the future hold for scent? This was the question posed at a sensory installation called Smell-X, recently held at the Figment NYC festival at Governor’s Island in New York City. We used to rely on our sense of smell to stay alive, but as Helen Keller commented, this once-vital ability became something of ‘the fallen angel of the senses’ when we no longer needed to smell a sabre-toothed tiger or forage for food with our noses as the guide.
We teach people techniques proven to enhance our olfactory abilities in our regular How To Improve Your Sense of Smell Workshops (keep an eye on our events pages and newsletter) attempting to re-connect those neural pathways and genuinely get more pleasure from smelling things in a different way each day. But what if we lived in a future where smell had become so dismissed, we forgot the emotional connections and time-travelling memories that scent can tap in to…?
Olivia Jezler is a designer and scent strategist, who invited guests’ to save the future of humanity’ in the multisensorial installation. Having worked for fragrance houses including IFF, Symrise and Robertet, working with brands and participating in academic research in Human Computer Interaction at the SCHI LAB at University of Sussex, Olivia wanted to see how members of the public interact with scent in a series of hands-on (or rather ‘noses-on’) experiments.
Participants were asked to imagine a future where, ‘…there is no need for the sense of smell and thus our smelling abilities have been genetically engineered to not exist. However, it has become noticeable that people have become joy-less, feelings of enjoyment, connection, beauty and emotion have disappeared and most worrisome, rates of suicide have increased…
Yet, there is hope. There are a few people who through a genetic mutation have retained their ability to smell, those in possession of the gene family Smell-X. Special agents search the world to identify these rare individuals who can perceive through their noses to be a “smell translator”. They are invited to a competition to translate basic smells into shapes. This is the first step to bringing humanity back into balance – giving them the ability to experience the elusive and emotive sense of smell through one of their other senses.’
We so wish we could have been in New York to see the exhibition in person, but for the rest of you who also couldn’t be there, luckily the Smell-X experiments are written about in great deatail on their website.
We’re completely fascinated by these ‘cross-modal’ explorations of smell – finding out the myriad ways our senses overlap. Indeed, we dedicated an entire issue of our magazine to the subject, including our award-winning feature on Synaesthesia.If you’re interested in discovering more, buy your magazine here!
Long before ‘gourmand’ foodie-inspired fragrances were even dreamed of and while smell was still perceived as the poor cousin of our other senses, one 18th Century polymath was championing the exquisite pleasures that taste and smell bring to everyday life. And more than mere pleasure alone: in fact, he heralded the proper appreciation and scientific study of these long-foregranted senses…
‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.’ So said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1755-1826, a French lawyer and politician whom, apart from law, studied chemistry and medicine, and eventually gained fame as an epicure and gastronome.
His seminal work Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), contains Savarin’s philosophies and observations on the pleasures of the food, which he very much considered a science – long before the birth of molecular gastronomy and serious studies of taste and smell had begun. And smell was very much at the forefront of the gastronomique experience, Savarin had worked out; exclaiming: ‘Smell and taste are in fact but a single composite sense, whose laboratory is the mouth and its chimney the nose.’
Previously considered the least important of the senses – indeed, smell remains the least scientifically explored, though technology is making huge leaps in our understanding – Savarin proclaimed that,’The sense of smell, like a faithful counsellor, foretells its character.’
Published only two months before his death, the book has never been out of print and still proves inspirational to chefs and food-lovers to this day.
Preceding the remarkable leaps in knowledge high-tech equipment has allowed and revealing how entwined our sense of smell is to the taste and enjoyment of food, Savarin also observed how our noses protect us from eating potentially harmful substances, explaining ‘…for unknown foods, the nose acts always as a sentinal and cries: “Who goes there?”‘ while coming to the conclusion that a person’s character may be foretold in their taste and smell preferences… ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.’ We devoted an entire issue of our award-winning magazine The Scented Letter (now available in print, and with online subscriptions worldwide!) to taste and smell – as of course we are gourmand fans in ALL the senses. And so it is heartening to know that Brillat was on our side here, with this extremely useful advice we selflessly pledge to carry through life:
‘Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral… they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.’
Wise words, indeed. We plan to enjoy all the sweet temptations that come our way, in scent form and in chocolate. Talk about having your cake and wearing it, too!
Written by Suzy Nightingale
Every year, IFRA[the International Fragrance Association] hold a Fragrance Forum, bringing together scientists, perfumers, press and all industry professionals who share an interest in the subject of scent. This year’s forum took the theme of ‘Do You Smell Well?’ with a full day of talks covering the ancient Egyptian’s use of incense and perfume in magical rites through to how babies learn to smell and even a wine-sniffing session.
Discussing therapeutic aspects of fragrance and perfume materials, a number of eminent speakers addressed these topics with gusto and as always, it was fascinating to mix with such a variety of professionals who make the study of how – and why – we smell, their life’s work.
In the distinguished setting of The Royal Society, we began the day with an historical look at spices, balsams and the incense of temples: the fragrances of ancient Egypt – the Egyptologist and raconteur John J. Johnston from University College London perhaps being familiar to some of you who have seen him speak at Egyptian-themed events with Odette Toilette. Among any number of fascinating tales, we learned how incense was made to specific recipes, with each ingredient serving a magical purpose as an offering to the gods. Stunning perfume recipticals survive, mostly of mystical beasts sticking out their tongues – ‘To wear perfume is as though to be licked by these magical animals.’
Dr Benoist Schaal from the Centre des Sciences du Goût, Djijon, addressed the audience with a talk entitled ‘Born to smell and smook‘ – “smook” being the way newborn babies smell and look while suckling at their mother’s breast, it turns out. A fascinating series of scientific studies were recounted, in which Benoist and his team have researched the way we are born to react to smell – that some odours do not need to be lerned and mammalian females have evolved the specific ability to highlight their breasts to their offspring by secreting a smell map around the nipples, to guide the babies directly there.
The next talk took a deeper philosophical topic of ‘the role of smell in consciousness‘ – Professor Barry C. Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy – Centre for the Study of Senses, argued that we don’t merely have the five (or six) senses usually attributed to humans – we could in fact have over twenty senses, each of them highly connected and overlapping with the rest. Smith went on to remind us that, historically, we have neglected our sense of smell as being the least important sense, but in fact it adds to and shapes almost every aspect of our lives! We were thrilled to hear this talk, most especially as it confirms everything we teach in our How to Improve Your Sense of Smell Workshops, and have had such great feedback from those who have taken part. Dr Mark D. Evans of De Montfort University, Leicester was making sense of frankincense – beginning with a truly “lightbulb” moment where he explained how this historically important perfume ingredient got its name: French incense – franc encens. Of course it makes perfect sense when it’s pointed out, but had never occured to us, previously! Herodotus wrote of frankincense in th 5th century BC, Pliny wrote how the Phoenix feasted on it, and in Roman Britian alone, up to 50 burial sites of wealthy citizens have been found to contain traces of frankincense, thought to be used in funeral rites. Indeed, frankincense has always primarily had a religious use, but we were astounded to learn the postive research results currently being investigated on its incredible anti-inflammatory properties, and possible future use in many medical treatments, including some cancers.
An insightful look at the state of the nation: shoppers and fragranced products followed, with Vitaliy Zhyhun from market research specialists Nielsen UKleading us through a series of charts, facts and figures that revealed the UK shopper is perhaps the most “disloyal” of all, shopping online and looking around for the best deals. Most interesting to us was their research that showed a huge swing toward smaller, independent or local shops – smaller brands also driving growth and far outperforming their larger competitors, and with online sales set to grow even more in the next couple of years.
Mr Carl Philpott, Honorary Consultant ENT surgeon & Rhinologist and Director of The Smell & Taste Clinic at James Paget Hospital led a moving talk on living without smell, looking at the research they’ve done on those people who have lost their ability to smell, and the many psychological implications this has on their lives. Reinforcing how vital our sense of smell is and how little resepct we pay it until it’s lost; Philpott showed the shocking numbers of those patients who developed severe depression and feelings of alienation – and some of the ways they are trying to resolve or help them. In fact, he’s now working with Duncan Boak of Fifth Sense – a charity we have supported and highlighted, for those affected by taste and smell disorders.
Finally, the always-welcome sound of corks popping heralded the return of Professor Barry C. Smith to the stage, guiding us through an olfactory exploration of wine – with our noses. Discussing the varying ways in which we perceive tastes (and mix them up with our other senses all the time – saying things smell “sweet” or “cold”, for example) and also relate smells and tastes to varying speeds… ‘Everyone in the world thinks lemons are “fast” and bananas are “slow”!’ chuckled the professor, as he also got the entire audience to identify the temperature of water, just by listening to a recording of it being poured. And the subtle but distinct difference between club soda, Champagne and prosecco being poured.
Who knew we had such hidden powers?
As ever, the IFRA Fragrance Forum left us with brains bursting from all the captivating information we’d taken in throughout the day, and noses a-twitch with a plethora of ideas of what to write about for future issues of The Scented Lettermagazine…
Written by Suzy Nightingale
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