Category Archives: Neuroscience

Aromatic Identities

Our sense of smell is a truly astonishing thing. Although humans have fewer olfactory receptor genes (so, basically, genes which allow you to smell a greater range of scents) than most mammals, because of our higher brain power, we’re still damn good at smelling what is what. In fact, what makes scent amazing and interesting is how little it has to do with our nose, and how much about our brain. Of course, without noses we’d be unable to smell anything. But that’s just pure mechanics. Where things get really interesting is how those smells get processed by the brain. The signals from our noise when we smell stuff terminate right next to our amygdala, which has a large role in how we process our memories. This means that scent is very strongly linked to memories for us – with memories evoked by scent often being far more emotional and evocative than that of memories evoked by sight or sound. Even more interesting, the memories evoked by scent often come from the earliest years of our lives – so it really goes back all the way, bringing back experiences which are often unreachable through sight and sound.

Because of all this, it’s interesting to see how scent can define us. Can a personality profile tell us what scents we’d like; or vice versa , can the scents we like reflect our personalities? This is, in essence, what Fragrance Lab at Selfridges is attempting to do – find your perfume prescription based on primarily on a personality profile, and secondarily on your reactions to a kind of “scent adventure”, culminating in the ‘fragrance garden’, where you’re guided through a number of rooms filled with different fragrances. You’ll smell things you love, and never want to leave (I was so wrapped up in smelling books that I got completely lost for a few minutes!), and odors you’ll hate so much that you’ll wonder how anyone could like them. Yet some people still do – the fragrances you like can define you in a way your favourite colour or texture never could, because of their strong link  to memory.

I had the very lucky chance to go through the Fragrance Lab – the Immersive Experience, as they call it, when you do both the personality profile and get to go on a “scent adventure” (my own name for it, because that’s basically what it felt like!) which culminates in an amazing “fragrance garden” (theirs). From this, you get your own fragrance prescription (which you get a bottle of), which is built up mainly from your personality profile. The fragrance prescription even influences the kind of bottle your fragrance comes in – which it’s modern, or classic, or something else entirely!

I actually had two fragrance prescriptions, the first being simply from my personality profile. This was intensely modern, and unusual – something that would easily stand out of the crowd. However, my “scent adventure” revealed that however modern and unique I may think I am, I’ve got a massive soft stop for antiquity. My second (and final) perfume prescription – number 147 – was incorporated that as well.

Modern and outgoing, but with an immense sense of nostalgia for the old. Pretty much me – I’m forward thinking, and very much ‘out with the old and in with the new’ when it comes to pretty much everything, but then I’m a sucker for beautiful antiquity. Give me a massive wooden library with leather chairs and stacks of old books over a shiny new iPad or eBook anyday. To quote, the key fragrance notes are ‘antique wood, whiskey, and fern’,  seeming to have a hint of spice to it, and coming in a classic glass bottle – it’s a scent which brings me back to curling up in the corner and reading books, while my Mum burns frankincense in the next room, which just slowly makes its way towards me. It’s also very different from my other perfumes, my favourite of which is very clean cut, and fresh and androgynous. This is far more deep and dusky – a scent I’m very glad to be able to add to my shelf – something more comforting and which I can just relax into. I often use scent as a way of projecting elements of myself which are perhaps not as strong otherwise – this is a more rounded fragrance which I could say expressed all of me. It’s strong yet understated, confident get still slightly reserved, with a hint of the unusual.

To see yourself profiled through fragrance is a very unique and wonderful experience – I may have taken hundreds of online personality tests, but this really reveals something deeper, especially  on the “scent adventure”. The Fragrance Lab was a truly amazing experience, something I’m so pleased I was able to take part in, and something I’d recommend to others quickly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to smelling my perfume (it’s addictive, but that might just be the high alcohol content!) and daydreaming about massive libraries and old books.  – oh Alexandria, how I mourn you!


First, I have to thank my sister Tiffany for getting me my spot in the Fragrance Lab – I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience it! Also, thanks to everyone who worked on and built the Fragrance Lab, creating such a unique and interesting (and also revealing!) experience, and also Selfridges for hosting it. 

I never realised how much scent meant to me – how much I hated certain smells, and was comforted by others. Yes, I knew about the fact that it was the most evocative sense, but I had never really experienced it for myself up till now. Fragrance Lab really opened up my nose, so to speak. 

What does smell mean for you? Are there certain smells which disgust you, but others love? And what makes a fragrance beautiful, and makes you want to wear it – does it have to evokes memories, or maybe project an image? Or do you try and find scents that fully evoke yourself, and nothing else – not something to hide behind or blur the corners, but to fully outline yourself, and nothing else. 

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Empirically Curated Art

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Imagine the scene. You’ve had a long day at work: maybe your boss was being especially cruel today, or your boyfriend broke up with you at lunch over the extra special anniversary picnic you had planned. Maybe you’ve been nominated to organise the surprise birthday party of that one person in your friend group who is just never satisfied. Whatever it is, now you’re home you just need to take a break from it all. You turn on your TV (A.I. controlled of course – everyone has one now darling), and the biosensor around your wrist bleeps once. Almost immediately, Mulan is playing on the screen in front of you, and before you know it your troubles begin to melt away as you join in singing ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ (with choreographed dance and martial arts routines, of course).

It’s actually a scenario which isn’t that improbable; one where A.I.s can gauge your mood through biosensors and respond accordingly – in this case, choosing just the right film to allow you to let out the stress of a hectic day. Of course, we’re not quite there, but a performance at the V&A last Friday – ‘Conducting Shakespeare’ – went someway towards opening the door to let us have a peek at what it might be like.

The set-up at the V&A involved four volunteers all hooked into biosensors. There was a muscle tension gauge, a heart rate monitor, a brain wave monitor (which measures electrical signals from neural activity, giving a measure of ‘emotional arousal’), and a galvanic skin monitor (measures the conductivity of the skin, which increases when we sweat). All of this data was then combined together in a linear weighted sum and interpreted by our “A.I.” in this scenario to curate the arts that would be seen and performed. However, our A.I. here has a not-so-artificial intelligence, being Alexis Kirke from Plymouth University. He was to act as conductor, orchestrating and guiding the emotions of the performance. Performance of what, you ask (although you may have guessed, given the subtitle)? Well, performances that have captured the hearts and minds of audiences for centuries – the words of the bard!

This was no ordinary performance of Shakespeare – this was to be a Shakespeare remix, with successive scenes being chosen based on the emotion reaction of the audience (as measured by the biosensors hooked up to the volunteers), the whole thing being curated by Alexis the conductor, who could then direct the path of our emotions as he liked.

We started out with a bit of light comedy, with Benedict and Beatrice’s quick-witted sparring duologue from the opening scene of Much Ado about Nothing. Romance then began to spark in the air with Juliet’s ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’ monologue, before the tone begins to turn altogether more sombre with an appearance of Hamlet in his tortured ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ speech. Staying sad (although with a distinct change of tone) we move to Hermione’s ‘Tell me what blessings I have here alive that I should fear to die?’ monologue from A Winter’s Tale, before back to Hamlet, although this time he is chastising Ophelia and demanding she ‘get thee to a nunnery’, ramping up the anger and bitterness.

Finally we get a reprise from all the sorrow (although anyone with knowledge of the play will find it bittersweet), as Romeo and Juliet enter and talk of love – ‘how silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night’ – before straight back to the sorrow with Queen Gertrude’s dead Ophelia monologue from Hamlet. Then we’re back to anger and annoyance with Richard II, and ‘no matter where, of comfort no man speaks’, before tricksy ambition enters the room as we see Lady Macbeth reading the letter describing Macbeth’s encounter with the three witches. Staying in the same play, the power begins to build as we see the Macbeths planning the murder of Duncan, with Lady Macbeth chastising Macbeth and telling him to ‘screw your courage to the sticking-place’, before we come full circle, and return to humour with Katharina and Petruchio duelling with words, a nice bit of comedy with allows us all to let off the tension that was building in the room – sexual innuendos will make anyone laugh, especially those of Shakespeare’s finesse – ‘my tongue in your tail’ indeed!

The performance was extremely effective – my heart was in my throat the whole time – and the eternal iambic pentameter of Shakespeare (and the brevity of the scenes) meant that even with the differing plotlines and characters, the whole thing flowed together smoothly. However, whilst the scenes were in part chosen from the data provided by the volunteers’ biosensors, a certain amount of human intuition was needed to make the whole thing run perfectly, as demonstrated by the final scene, an artistic decision on the part of the director that worked perfectly to let everyone let off some steam.

The need for this human component (instead of simply letting the conductor be an A.I.) comes down to many reasons – not least because this set-up had only been calibrated once before so the output data itself needed to be taken with a pinch of scientific salt. More so, however, the biosensors themselves can only detect the (fallible and fickle) physical symptoms of emotions, not the emotions themselves. In fact, with our limited biological understand of emotions, it’s hard to see how we could use biosensors to perfectly measure emotions (although some could argue this is the role of a combination of biosensors and fMRIs), and therefore whilst this problem still exists, the role of human understanding and intuition is crucial in this scenario.

Whilst perhaps we’re not quite at the stage to implement handy empathetic TVs, the use of measured emotional and physical responses to guide and curate performance (and other kinds of) art opens up some very interesting avenues, as demonstrated by ‘Conducting Shakespeare’ at the V&A. Imagine exhibitions where you wear headsets, and your emotional arousal if monitored as you wander through the gallery, and you get directly to things that you’d probably like based on it! The ability to empirically measure the body’s response to art is extremely interesting, and opens up the possibility of looking into things like how art affects your short-term and long-term mental health and emotional state. It’s an area that holds much potential and interest, both for the scientific and artistic communities, and as a personal interest for myself!

‘Conducting Shakespeare’ was part of a series of events held at the V&A to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It was produced by Alexis Kirke and Peter Hinds from Plymouth University in collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with actors Melanie Heslop and James Mack playing the female and male roles respectively. 


 

And, well, there’s my first ever blog post done! The image used in the header is part of a tie-in little shoot I did inspired by Shakespeare (it kinda turned into a femme Puck look by the end) which will be published this Wednesday. I hope you enjoyed the piece, and please comment below (I’d really appreciate concrit and suggestions)!