A Sketch: Scents and Sensibilities: The Invisible Language of Smell
I often think of myself as a part of a tiny flock of kindred souls who walks around thinking about what and how we smell. I never would have imagined that a mass of humanity would want to go to an auditorium on a Saturday afternoon in NYC to hear various scientists speak about the fine tuning of smelling. However, I was wrong. When I entered the auditorium at the New School there was a full house of eager people wanting to attend the World Science Festival. I was handed a program and a white envelope (care of IFF) with 4 smelling cards inside, and I quickly found a seat between two seemingly scientific couples, and we were off. There were 4 panelists, 3 women and 1 man.
I immediately wanted to hear more of what Sissel Tolaas had to say.
The program states that Sissel Tolaas’s work focuses on smell, language, and communication while spanning science, art and industry. She has a lot to say about humans and their relationship to smell. When it comes to smell she prefers the perspective that there are no good or bad smells, just lots to smell, and Ms. Tolass says that we destroy our chances to smell everyday by living in our overly sanitizing-hand gel, deodorized and perfumed culture. She wants to bring reality back to what we smell, and from what I can tell she is focused primarily on our bodies as a source. I agree, let’s know what we actually smell like before we start dispersing all kinds of stuff on our bodies. She has studied and captured men’s sweat, actually men who suffer from panic attacks to see if she could detect what fear smells like. She then numbered and bottled their smell and somehow painted it on a MIT gallery wall so folks could come and smell them. When she did the same exhibit in China, Tolaas described a woman that came back every day to smell #8, she had fallen in love with the smell of a very particular sweaty panic attack ridden man.
Also enlightening on the panel were: Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist, who spoke about the potential of the science of smell, which is only been around for a couple of decades; Consuelo De Moraes, a biologist and ecologist who studies the complex role of chemistry in interactions among plants and other organisms. Yes, plants can smell!, Avery Gilbert, a smell scientist, entrepreneur and author, and lastly Juju Chang the very polished moderator of 20/20 TV news fame. When Sissel began to talk about how she was able to make human cheese (as a starter she used mucous and other living body secretions) Juju just couldn’t take it, and kept on responding the way she said her 3 year old would, she repeated in her best 3 year old voice, “that’s digusting, that’s digusting, that’s digusting”. Somehow I don’t think that was the response Sissel was looking for.
I will leave you with the events Opening remarks and what was on our scent cards.
The Olfactory Bulb is the only part of the brain that sits outside of the skull. So our sense of smell is just sitting there waiting to trigger and fire. It is primal and evocative, yet we need to find a way to talk about it. Olfaction is stored in the subconscious. Smell is emotional, expressive and intuitive, but it’s not all about emotion it’s cognitive too, comparative and analytical. Smell is complex.
Yes it is.
The entire audience smelled these cards together: 1. Swiss Cheese/Human Feet, 2. Chicken Soup/dry powdered, 3. Musk/Galaxolide, 4. Tiari (a Tahitian flower)