Imagine a time you passed someone on a street and their scent reminded you someone you love, this could be your partner or parent.
Context of Enquiry
How can we challenge currently established forms of commutation with the help of biology and design? Focusing on creating new types of olfactory communication between loved ones, evoking memories and emotions, transcending time and space.
Scents are essentially just molecules floating in the air that our nose can recognize by specialized receptors. The video below shows a beautiful visualization of how smells actually look like.
But scents are fascinating for two main reasons. They can trigger memories and emotions associated with them, but they also allow us to sense the well being of others around us and adopt the same emotion.
Memories from scents – Science
Research has proven that memories triggered by scents are a lot stronger than when they are trigger by any other sensory input.
“ Memories recalled by odors are significantly more emotional and evocative than those recalled by the same cue presented visually or auditory.” 
“ Odor-evoked memories are more emotional, associated with stronger feelings of being brought back in time, and have been thought of less often as compared to memories evoked by other cues.” 
This is likely due to how smells are processed, the signal passes close or through amygdala, the hedonic centre of our brains.
Memories from scents – Art
A group of artists have developed a “smell memory kit” taking advantage of the mentioned science. Humans are capable of perceiving a wide range of scents and majority of these are not yet associated to memories. Using this kit people can create these new associations. Let’s say one is at a party they want to remember it forever, using this kit, they break of the the scent capsules and smell it during the occasion, creating a new association. Whenever they would like to go back, they smell the corresponding scent capsule and this should evoke the memory of the party.
Emotions from scents – Science
We are able to subconsciously perceive the well being of others purely form scent. We can tell whether someone is happy, excited , sad or ill. There has been a study done on couples , where one of the partners watched movies with different genres and the other was to tell what emotion were they feeling purely from their scent. The results were very positive showing that people especially in romantic relationship can tell each others emotions from scent. Furthermore, the longer the partners were together the better they were at telling each other’s emotions.
Our perception of other peoples emotions can be based on pheromones, communication hormones, which we all release. This area is still being explored but at least one has been shown to have positive effects on people perceiving it.
“ Androstadienone (progesterone derivative 4,16-androstadien-3-one) increases attraction, affects mood and cortisol levels and activates brain areas linked to social cognition.
Emotions from scents – Art
In an exhibition called the smell of fear, the artist collected sweat or body odor from people in situations where they experienced fear. He then captured these scents into capsules and let the visitors experience the physical manifestations of fear solely from scents.
Our team was able to create proof of concept of biology which can essentially replicate any human smell, and I was proud to be able to participate in shaping some of these concepts. This biology works as follows.
We first create a colony of different strains of bacteria, where each one will be able to sense and produce one different molecule. The sensed and produced molecules correspond to the range of scents humans can produce. To replicate a specific persons smell we add a sample of their body odor (swab from their skin) into this colony. The bacteria that recognize their matching molecule from the sample will have a gene triggered by which they develop a chemical pump. Next we add antibiotics to the sample, the bacteria which sensed their molecule will simply pump it out and stay unaffected, the rest will die. Now we are left with only the bacteria which can collectively replicate the specific persons smell. These leftover bacteria will start producing this scent whenever they are introduced to food and go dorment (into a spore form) when they run out.
What form should a smell replicating biology take to best serve the purpose of evoking emotions and memories, transcend time and space, while highlighting the living aspects?
Jumping a little ahead, these are some examples of forms that such a biology could have taken. The 3D sketch below (first one I have ever made) shows three items. The middle one could be a table diffuser, making your room smell like home or your loved one. The one on the right was inspired by current advances in aromatherapy to treat alzheimer’s patients. In these treatments patients are introduced into familiar smell like the smell of toast. We could propose a locket holding a picture and a scent of their loved one to improve their well being. Ultimately the form of the left was chosen and below are some design motivations.
The first question explored was whether this device should be a private experience or a public piece. Examples of private experiences would be a snuff box or a pendant which could be fitted to produce scents.
Next very visual statement pieces of jewelry were explored. Probably the biggest impact on our design was the introduction of headphones. Thinking back, when headphones were introduced they were these strange devices you wore on you head and they created a new sensory experience.
So an addition to the design opportunity: Create a portable piece challenging current concepts of jewelry by introducing a new sensory experience. A piece that could be both worn as a statement.
Below are some examples of jewelry which further influenced the final shape of our piece.
Prototyping and making
I was very thankful for all the help the technicians in the jewelry workshop provided when I making the final piece.
The four step proces: 1. Take a sample of scent 2. Add scent to bacteria 3. Add antibiotics 4. Add food and smell
The final result :
Larsson, M. & J. Willander. 2009. Autobiographical odor memory. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. International Symposium on Olfaction and Taste.
Herz, Rachel S. (2004). “A Naturalistic Analysis of Autobiographical Memories Triggered by Olfactory Visual and Auditory Stimuli”. Chem. Senses.29 (3): 217–224.
 Making scents of a partner’s feelings, Science news, 2010
 J. Verhaeghe, R. Gheysen and P. Enzlin Pheromones and their effect on women’s mood and sexuality