Sense & Sensibility: IFRA UK Fragrance Forum 2017
On Thursday 12th October CPL Aromas were delighted to be gold sponsors of the 2017 IFRA UK Fragrance Forum at the Royal Society in London. Each year, the forum brings together individuals who work across disciplines, creating a programme of talks that illuminate thinking on the sense of smell. It is an opportunity for the delegates from the fragrance industry to be stimulated by innovative initiatives and new research on smell – one talk for example promised to tell us how to make a smell invisibility cloak...
This year’s programme was entitled Sense and Sensibility, chosen as this year marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. With ‘sensibility’ in mind, the talks explored how smell has the power to affect our surroundings, our bodies, and our choices: how it influences our perception of products, our relationship to place, the art that is created, and even whether we are attractive to mosquitoes. This year, the programme focused too on how smell can also indicate our health and therefore be used to diagnose disease.
Volatile compounds and the body
Did you know that dogs have special slits in their noses, enabling them to simultaneously inhale and exhale, sniffing up to 240 times a minute? Dr Claire Guest of the charity Medical Detection Dogs described her research in training sniffer dogs to detect the odour of various diseases in samples such as urine, breath and swabs – a project that will in the future be converted into a reliable electronic 'nano nose'. The other side to this inspiring initiative is that these medical detection dogs also live with those affected by disease. Trained to detect physiological changes, each dog becomes their owner’s watchful companion, alerting them to these changes and potentially saving human lives.
And there is another way in which smells are related to our health. Dr James Logan’s research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine centres on why some people seem to be totally unattractive to mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are drawn to humans initially through sensing the carbon dioxide in their breath, but once close to humans what makes a mosquito chose one body over another? This is down to smell. Using GCSM (gas chromatography–mass spectrometry), James’ analysed the volatile compounds released from the skin, comparing them to those that the mosquito could detect. He found that the fortunate few who are not bitten in fact release additional compounds. Exactly what causes this will form the next stage of his research. James also described how a parasite’s ‘brainwashing’ techniques that help it propagate also extend to smells. A mosquito infected with malaria will become more responsive to human odour, and likewise malaria will alter the host’s body odour making them more attractive to mosquitoes, who will then in turn be infected.
James showed how in the future these discoveries will be incorporated into wearable devices and pills that will transform the volatile compounds we release. It is research that delves further into how smells can have implications for our chemical makeup, and therefore our physicality.
changing attitudes in the 19th century
The smells around us also affect how we perceive our environment and how we represent this in the visual arts. Dr Christina Bradstreet is an art historian specialising in British art from 1850-1910, investigating how 19th century attitudes to the sense of the sense of smell shaped the paintings of this time. A notable event of this period was the Great Stink in summer 1858 that brought London to a standstill: this was largely a time when, as Edwin Chadwick professed, ‘all smell is disease’.
By extension, in the Victorian mind this included corruption and depravity, with paintings communicating sexual awakening or prostitution via depictions of the experience of smell - suggesting both the smell of the surroundings, but also a subject smelling and the private experience this entails. Christina suggested that improving sanitation and the beginnings of germ theory (as opposed to miasmic theory) in the 1860s paved the way for smells to be thought of on more aesthetic terms. This period also of course coincides with the growth of the perfume industry: a time when fragrance was beginning to be created with greater attention to the aestheticising effects it could bring thanks to synthetic ingredients and a more neutralised scent in public spaces. But fragrances were marketed in terms of fresh air and sunlight, showing how the memories of disease and depravity as ‘bad smells’ lingered in the imagination. These attitudes still arguably remain in our modern minds too.
Also related to the theme of urban smells, Kate McClean, artist and designer at Canterbury Christ Church University, is working towards her PhD at the Royal College of Art on mapping ‘smellscapes’. At a time when so much information is brought to our attention, designers must find ways to make this visible. Kate researches olfactory perceptions of cities across the world. This work is part of a small movement that believe smells form an important part of our knowledge, elusive perceptions that can nevertheless be rendered knowable and visible. This mapping is a process uncovers the emotional tension between place and smell. Increasingly, we seem to be looking for ways to understand the sense of smell in terms of our emotional health and the fragility of this in our present-day lives.
Dr Daniele Quercia, a computer scientist from Bell Labs, Cambridge, is also discovering ways to understand how sensory experience is connected to emotion, and how this can be harnessed. What urban scenes make people happy? His research has focused on urban informatics and how to map places according to different emotions – you might then be able to move through a city according to how beautiful a route is, what it smells like or what it sounds like. He uses computer science tools to replicate social science experiments at web scale and the result is a cartography based on human emotions. He warns against the ‘single path’ in a world fabricated for efficiency.
Blending the senses
But what actually is sensory perception? Are our senses as distinct as we think? Clare Jonas of the University of East London is interested in multisensory perception such as synaesthesia - where one sensory stimulus prompts a response in another sense, for example a sound having a colour - and embodied cognition, whereby the body beyond the brain play a significant role in cognition. She introduced cross-modal correspondence, a kind of synaesthesia that everyone experiences: to a certain extent we all relate certain colours, textures and sounds to stimulus, like high-pitched sounds being ‘light’ in colour. In the fragrance industry, this cross-modal perception is involved in how fragrance is created to enhance the role of a certain product. Research such as this comes at a time when modern cognitive neuroscience has shown that we don’t just have five senses, but thirty-three. Not only is this due to senses we don’t normally think of, such as proprioception (an understanding of where your limbs are in relation to one another) but also how the senses interact.
If you experience these cross-modal correspondences in action, you see how they affect your perception of products too. Sarah Hyndman is a graphic designer known for her work in the psychology of typography. Fonts on packaging can build a certain anticipation for a product and enhance our experience – or lead to greater disappointment if quality is suggested when the product itself does not match this. Through a wine tasting we discovered how taste is heavily influenced by colour and sound: the same wine appeared fruitier and smoother looking at a red screen and listening to ‘smooth’ sounds, but became sharper when looking at a pale green screen and listening to screeching sounds!
The entire programme gave a fascinating snapshot of future research into perception and emotion, and how smells are always being understood in new ways that will affect our futures. The fragrance industry will no doubt continue to have an important part to play in what is possible with our sense of smell.