Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Renaissance of Smell

Immerse yourself in a pot of hot enfleurage so we can bottle your essence forever, just like this murder victim from the movie Perfume.

Trends come and go, we know that. The rate of change, however, is a topic worthy of discussion. People used to say that fashion revolves on a twenty year cycle – wait til the 90’s and bellbottoms are cool again. You know what hasn’t been in fashion for a while though? Smell.

I’m looking at a great piece by Smell Futurist Olivia Jezler about the coming wave of olfactory experience headed our way. It was written a year ago, but since we’re going to examine very long timescales here, her piece is still relevant. This is a slow wave.

Looking Back – The Loss of a Sense
Unlike bellbottoms and banjos, smell is not a cultural artifact; it is a medium for transmission. And as such, it’s been around forever. Longer even than the comb-over! And it used to be so important to us. It told us what was ok to eat, who was ok to mate with, and when to take out the garbage. And then, one day, tricolor vision and bipedal height advantage come along, and BAM – no more smells.

Seeing in color makes eyes the most high-fidelity info channel ever, and the height advantage from walking on two legs both expands that field of polychromatic vision and takes our noses off the ground, making them way less useful. Vision wins, and olfaction bites the dust. We spend the next half a million years looking at flowers and listening to crinkly sounds but not a single smell. Sure there’s food and taste, but we have very completely convinced ourselves that most of what we taste is taste and not smell, although it is in fact the other way around.

(Also dogs – I don’t hear many people saying this, but I think human coevolution with dogs, who can smell really well, made us not have to smell as well. Animal cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz might be able to weigh-in on this.)

There was a brief moment around the late 1700’s when smells took the spotlight again, causing the French Revolution and subsequently pouring the foundation for our modern public hygiene infrastructure, not a big deal. And that’s it. No more smells, anywhere.

Looking Forward – The Experience Economy
And then, all of the sudden, we enter the new millennium and it becomes apparent that smell has returned. One day we wake up and flowers smell floral, and perfume bottles no longer spray odorless distilled water (but fatal nerve agents, not funny). Things will get way crazier, according to Jezler’s insights.

“The Renaissance of Smell“
-Bernardo Fleming, Head of the Olfactive Design Studio at International Flavors & Fragrances

Jezler points out what has happened to cause this disturbance in our datasphere – people are now willing to pay more for experiences than for things. I call this dematerialization, but she goes on to describe the cycle of consumerism upon us. She describes how brands today put lots of money behind the creation of experiences that cannot be ‘consumed’ unless you’re there for real.

I think she would have to explain to me why it is that brands want their consumers to go somewhere and do something together. Something about memetic transmission and social networks I guess. Or how about exclusivity? I’ll bet that’s it. You’re just jealous because you’re only hearing about this now, after it’s already been transmitted by someone cooler than you, and that makes you want it more.

An experience economy needs to use all the senses, and this has put more attention on the low hanging fruit, the most unexplored on the market – smell.

And although you can partially consume last night’s pop-up event via this morning’s newsfeed, you can never get the whole thing, because you will never smell it if you’re not there. And that’s because the event last night was augmented by a group of olfactory magicians on the team. From the smell on the seatbelts in the cab on the way over, to the scent on the ticket they gave you at the door, that event was designed as a fully immersive olfactory experience, whether you realized it or not.

Talk about Joel Beckerman and sonic branding – it’s more powerful than Pavlov. (Just kidding it’s the same.) You hear a jingle over and over until it brands a band of your auditory cortex. You’ve been primed.

Scent branding works too, although we pay attention to it less. Whether we notice or not, the brands notice; take a look at Play-Doh exercising their intellectual property rights to be a specifically-scented product. But I am digressing from the point. The Renaissance of Smell rides not just the wave of the experience economy, but also of the palette-forward generation behind the wheel.

“…Smell has been put back on the map through a myriad of factors, and three reasons I believe in particular: Our desire for experience, academic progress, and the rise of the gourmet palette.”
-Olivia Jezler, Owner of The Future of Smell, Fragrance Innovation Consultant

Consumers of today know way more about their biscuits than their grandparents did. Just look at what’s written above a café counter today vs thirty years ago. (It used to just say “Coffee.”)

Just Coffee

This sophistication extends far beyond coffee, and it gives consumers the talent, the exposure and the lexicon to appreciate the gustatory satisfaction of complex aroma.

Looking For Reinforcements – Academia Adds Potency
I saved the “academics” part of Jezler’s premonition for last. The experience economy, of which the gourmet movement is a part, is not the only thing fanning a more fragrant datasphere towards our sensory apparatus. Jezler uses the Academics tag to group together all the new technologies and concepts that have augmented and extended our understanding of this most primitive of senses, from digital noses to hormonal engineering.

Unfortunately, I’m a real pessimist about anything even slightly resembling an electronic nose, or the digital transmission of odorous molecules. However, when I hear somebody (the MIT Media Lab) say that estrogen is a “biotechnical civil disobedience, seeking to subvert dominant biopolitical agents of hormonal management, knowledge production, and anthropogenic toxicity,” I can’t help but get pretty excited. (They’re connecting the profusion of environmental estrogen due to excess petrochemical use, or ‘xenoestrogen,’  to an increasing hormonal malleability, or ‘queering’ of our society, in case you’re wondering.) 

There are plenty of legitimate attempts at bringing our noses to the technocratic party, but I don’t see these going beyond fiction for quite some time. In fact, I should say that it is the main reason why it is such an intriguing subject for a fictional future.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction (especially in today’s world where Big Data has made the truth way harder to faithfully articulate). After all, science fiction gives us the imagination that we need to create the future.

Despite the threat of our world becoming a cold, body-less, virtual space that is a network of quantum repeaters in low earth orbit, Jezler sees us re-engaging with all of our senses. Chances are it will be a bit of both. In the meantime, it makes good business sense to consider the low-hanging fruit of the experience economy. Whether you’re designing the next delivery bot, or writing a proposal for research funding, don’t forget that people care about their sense of smell. It’s what makes an experience authentic, and authenticity will always be in style. 

Image source: A still from the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Image source: Old coffeshop menu

SMELL: How our insatiable desire for experience is giving rise to sensory perception and the renaissance of smell
Olivia Jezler - Medium, 2017

The Future of Smell

Odors and Urban Planning
Limbic Signal, 2017

Kate Maclean’s Sensory Maps

Hasbro trademarks Play-doh’s scent: Sweet, slightly musky
AP News, May 2018

Imagineering Institute’s Digital Smell Interface

MIT Media Lab’s Design Fiction Group on Open Source Estrogen and Hormone Microperformance

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Relative Metrics

It is occurring to me now that Asifa Majid must be a patron saint of Limbic Signal. Besides being the most often cited scientist on this site, she is also, as far as I know, the only academic researching the language of smell.

I’m not sure where she spends more of her time – with the people who live in the Bay of Bengal, or at her university in the Netherlands – but as a result of her work we get to learn more about the rich odor vocabulary of those people, and about the way all of our minds translate sensory experience into language.

In this new work, she compares odor-words used by both the hunting-gathering Jahai people and post-industrialist Dutch people. And it turns out that the Jahai actually had words for smell-types whereas the Dutch referred to smells only by their source. So for example, what I am calling smell-types, are Jahai words referring to “stinging smells,” vs Dutch words referring to “a garbage truck.”

As a whole, she also found that both groups responded in similar ways. Whereas the Jahai had more agreement on the descriptors and with a faster response time, the Dutch gave a wider variety of answers for the same things and struggled to come up with answers at all.

The one thing they did have in common – and this is a nod to the role of the limbic system – their emotional responses to the tested odors were all the same. They know this because they all made the same negative facial expressions in response to similar smells.

Smell as a Window to the Human Condition
The use of facial expressions as a way to measure smells has a long history. Before babies can talk, they can sure make faces, and so scientists can use those expressions to measure pleasure vs disgust. Or at least disgust. (I don’t think the markers for pleasure are as clear and identical across populations, or at least as a measurement for olfactory hedonics – the pleasure or disgust that smells can cause.)*

But that is a momentary digression – we must now get into the depths of this conversation about olfaction, perception, culture, and human-ness. The press release from Radboud University Nijmegen articulates the crux very succinctly: “This suggests that although culture shapes language, odors are perceived in the same way across the globe in diverse cultures.”

First off, this last bit about universal perceptual responses implies that we have a preference hardwired into us, making some smells good and some bad, determined on the day our code was written. But we learn what is good and what is bad, in regards to smell. It is enculturated into us from before we were born.

If there is a common thread running through all humans that makes us like some smells and dislike others, it is because we are constrained first biologically, then culturally. Culture or not, we will learn that human waste is bad, and that it smells bad, even though we may not know it at first. It is simply a matter of probability and statistics – chances are we will all come to find human waste disgusting, and those are not the same chances as whether someone will find aged cheese disgusting or not. We have to learn to like aged cheese, and kimchi, and just about all fermented things.

On Lanugage, Words, and Cognition
Hedonics is easier to talk about; it’s pretty black and white. The semantics of olfaction, however, that’s the hard part. The core of Majid’s work deals with the language of smell, and by extension the Whorf hypothesis, and figuring out what is universal to the human experience and what part is driven into us by our culture. She compares the opposites, the hunter-gatherers and the post-industrialists, using a very clever metric – measuring the way they use language to describe olfactory experiences. She wants to find out what is left when their respective cultures cancel each other out. (Actually, I’m not sure what she wants from her work, but that’s what I want!)

Majid’s metric is clever to be sure, but it’s a slippery one, and for me it brings with it enough trips and falls to write a book, which I have. And it goes something like this:
"There is no language for smells, because it bypasses the language centers of the brain.”
-Hidden Scents
By some accounts, I am wrong. But this is about the grey areas, not the black and whites or rights and wrongs. I’ll continue with a longer passage from a concluding section in my book where we look at a situation similar but different:
In the Bay of Bengal live the Ongee people. A “nose-wise” society, they treat olfaction with as much importance as Western vision. When the West once asked the Ongee for help in making a map of their land, the Ongee man responded: “All the places in space are constantly changing. The creek is never the same; …. Your map tells lies. Places change. Does your map say that?” (Pandya 1991). Smell is like this. Whether through the meanderings of history, or the chimerical configurations of post-modernity, smell is always changing. The Ongee are right; there are no maps, no categories, and no lexicon to show that.
Pandya V (1990). Movement and Space: Andamanese Cartography. American Ethnologist 17:775–797.
The people in question do not use language in the same way as the scientists studying their ways, and so the very word “language” must be clearly defined. Here’s a reminder: in conducting linguistic studies upon many indigenous people, the first thing the intrepid scientist must do is to explain what a word is. That's right, the very concept of the sentence as made of simpler word-parts is unfamiliar if not unknown to certain cultures, and must be painstakingly explained before any “studying” can take place.

Cultural Influence
Getting to the depth of this subject on the human condition, I’ll restate an extensive passage from this site, written a few years ago:

I insinuate not even a whisper of Whorf hypothesis in this: A common Westerner of the 21st century spends a great deal of time in the virtual mindspace, very much removed from the physical environment, very much interacting not with molecules but with thoughts. There is an interstitial space which exists between the person and the world, and this is the collective mindspace of culture.

The post-industrialized human does not perform in a cycle of environmental stimulus and bodily response, but separates the two in time, opening a place for reflection and deliberation. Subjectively-conscious, self-reflective thought interrupts our direct connection with the world around us. Furthermore, systems functioning only via chemical stimuli are de-prioritized for others better suited to simulation and virtual manipulation.

The rich olfactory vocabulary of Majid’s study groups, is it not an indication of the direct reliance upon their physical environment? Instead of it proving that there can be such a thing as a ‘language of smell,’ does it not further support that the two – olfaction and language – are mutually exclusive? I believe this is a case of apples and oranges, but because the subject matter straddles disciplines (psychology, linguistics, sensory studies) it evades such critical analysis.

Concluding Thought
It’s very hard to grasp the extent to which you have learned from your culture; the totality of your programming can never be understood by you because that would break the information law that says a system can never contain a model to fully describe the system that created it.

*A Note on Negative Hedonics
Negative olfactory hedonics is the most physiologically “visible,” showing increased heart rate and activation of the amygdala in response to unpleasant odors. In contrast, neutral and pleasant odors exhibit dormancy (Alaoui-Ismaïli et al., 1997; Zald & Pardo, 1997, resp.). It is also the most nominally visible – bad smells occupy more of the odor namespace than any other distinction, making the hedonic taxonomy quite phobiaphilic (Boisson, 1997). Finally, some odor specialists postulate that such negatively valenced stimuli are processed in two neurologically distinct ways: a “quick and dirty” route for potentially harmful substances and a more “cognitively complex” route for pleasant/neutral odors (Rouby & Bensafi, 2002: 154-55). –taken from Hidden Scents

Alaoui-Ismaïli O, Vernet-Maury E, Dittmar A, Delhomme G, & Chanel J (1997). Odor Hedonics: Connection with Emotional Responses Estimated by Autonomic Parameters. Chemical Senses 22: 237-48.
Boisson C (1997). La Dénomination des Odeurs: Variations et Régularités Linguistiques. In: Olfaction: Du Linguistique au Neurone, ed. D Dubois & A Holley. Intelligentica 1(24): 29-49.
Rouby C & Bensafi M (2002). Is There a Hedonic Dimension to Odors? In: Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition, ed. C Rouby, B Schaal, D Dubois, R Gervais, & A Holley, pp. 140-159. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

Image source: Stenographer, Mike Gifford, 2014

Radboud University, 2018

Asifa Majid et al. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139

Links to more of Majid’s work:
Current Biology, Majid and Kruspe: "Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special"

Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhult. Cognition, November 2013.

Asifa Majid interviewed by cognitive scientist Jon Sutton: The Content of Minds in The Psychologist, July 2016.

Links to Posts related to Majid’s work, language, and cognition:

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Smell Memory Kit

Sissel Tolaas is a maniac. And if you don't know who she is, you should, because she's pushing the olfactory world to the brink of utopia.

Smell researcher extraordinaire, she does a lot of crazy things related to smells. She also has a knack for understanding and exploring the autobiographical aspects of smell.

In this project, the Smell Memory Kit, she hacks through the jungle of our olfactory system to deliver an idea, and a product, that is actually really useful.

This Kit uses "abstract smells" created in her lab - this simply means they are a smell (or combination of smell-molecules composed in a single gestalt smell) you've most likely never smelled before. And if you're having a special experience, and you want to remember it forever, you break open the abstract smell amulet, take a whiff, and bam - totally immersive physiodatamap.

This is very clever, because every smell you have ever smelled is already a part of your autobiographical memory, which is the part of your memory that encodes everything you've ever done and how it felt and who you were with etc. Smell memories are the most powerful kinds of memories. Because smell is the only sense to enter our brain backwards (it gets processed by the 'feeling' parts of us first, and then by the thinking parts) it records with it all of the physiological data in your body at that moment along with it. This is why smells can evoke such powerful memories.

And if you smell something for the first time (Toolas' Abstract Smells) then the thing you're experiencing at the moment will be linked with that smell. So it's a clever way to re-live that experience in its entirety.

Anyway, she does a better job of explaining it:

The Smell Memory Kit is a revolutionary tool to capture the most important moments of your life. 
THE STARTER PACK contains one abstract smell portioned into 3 AMPULES and a handmade metal AMULET to carry your smell ampule wherever you go. 
Abstract smells are smells that have NOT YET been connected with any memories so far 
Whenever you want to eternally record and memorize a moment, you just break open the SMELL KIT AMPULE, release the abstract smell molecules and take a deep breath. 
From now on this smell will bring back the memory and the emotion of this very moment each and every time you open your SMELL MEMORY AMULET.

image source:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Decanting Process


This isn’t about the decanting process; it’s about a fatal nerve agent disguised in a bottle of perfume.

Perhaps you heard about the assassination that became a public health emergency in England this year. A foreign military wanted to teach someone a lesson, so they put a deadly chemical in a bottle and sent it to England, where it poisoned a man and his daughter. It’s still not known how they came in contact with it, but trace of the chemical was discovered at the two restaurants they visited that day.

It became a public health emergency because they didn’t know where the substance came from or where it went, only that these people got dosed with enough of it to incapacitate them in a very short time. This meant that anyone in the community could face the same fate, and in fact, many people could have been affected, or will be affected. A police officer investigating the incident was poisoned, for example.

Not long after this incident, another couple is struck. A man finds a bottle of perfume lying around and he gives it to his girlfriend. She sprays it on her wrists, gets a headache in 15 minutes, passes out in 30, and dies a few days later. And this happened after a week-long cleanup operation.

I am not sure how big this perfume bottle is, but I will assume it’s like a sample bottle for promotional purposes. You can get somewhere between 10 and 100 sprays out of that. This woman died one week after spraying herself once.

Nerve agents get into your system however they can, even through the surface of your skin (which is not made of plastic as you may think, but is more like paper in that it absorbs liquids which can then migrate into your bloodstream). When these things are used for assassination purposes they are designed at such a high concentration that they kill the target on the spot, or at least within a few days.

The way they do this is by disrupting the dance between Acetylcholine and Acetylcholinesterase that makes your muscles twitch and then relax. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a nerve signal to your muscles, acetycholine acts, and a muscle twitches. And then acetylcholinesterase reacts, and the muscle relaxes. Nerve agents stop the second part from happening; you’re all twitch, no relax.

Uncontrolled release of all bodily fluids including excessive salivation, drooling, tearing, runny nose, dilated pupils, and seizures lead to all of your muscles being prevented from relaxing. That leads to paralysis, especially of the diaphragm muscle. Once the lungs stop working, they fill with all that excess fluid, with suffocation being the final effect.

Victims who recover can be left with all kinds of neurological damage, like not being able to sleep, walk, talk, or think, and that’s not even addressing its other toxic effects on organs like the liver, for example.

This is the thing – we're not talking about people, individuals, being harmed here. An entire bottle of this substance (a few cubic centimeters at most) is enough to poison dozens and potentially hundreds of people. All it has to do is get into the right place.

So until we can guarantee that military grade chemical weapons aren’t being carelessly thrown into a garbage can near you, let’s be careful about what we find lying around.

Novichok Was in a Perfume Bottle, U.K. Victim Says
July 2018, NYTimes

Friday, August 3, 2018

On the Science of Vintage Thrift Store Smells

Jolie Kerr wrote a book about how to clean stuff real good. In fact, she’s a cleaning expert.
Her blog is about getting the drool crust off your kids’ stuffed animals and analyzing Karate Kid’s waxing technique.

Not sure if it has something to do with the preoccupation with smell, but I am also a bit crazy about cleaning things. Let’s continue.

She knows some people in the cleaning industry, like Proctor & Gamble. They own all the cleaning products like Tide etc. She sent them some thrift store retro-wear to get a headspace analysis, which means they put your old clothes/my new clothes into a smelling machine to see what they’re made of, scent-wise. The results show that most of the odors come from us, as in our body oils. Not much of a surprise. Sorry if that's a let-down, but I'm not sure what you were expecting.

Here’s how they describe these anthropogenic aromas: Sweet, sour, oily, herbal, fatty, whiskey, nutty, cheesy, sweaty, stinky feet, fermented, bready.

More surprising is the environmental smells that came from gasoline, car exhaust, dry cleaning, solvents, perfume, etc.

She then goes on to explain how to clean these smells out of your clothes, because she’s a cleaning expert after all. I, on the other hand, came just for the smells.

Smell words related to thrift stores:
Grandma’s attic
Whiff of wool
Hint of cigarette smoke
A life well-lived
(the smell of old people – nonenal)

Post Script:
Check out this very informative post about the smells that come from your body, in case that’s something you’ve always wanted to know more about:

Jun 2018, The New York Times