Something in the Air: Jenny Tillotson and the sense of smell 

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Perhaps one of the toughest challenges for a writer is describing scents. Why is that? Is it because there is no prescribed language for smells beyond the vague—good, bad, sweet, pungent and so on?

Jenny Tillotson

Jenny Tillotson
Fashion Communicator, (Sc)entrepreneur

Jenny Tillotson has made scent her career. She is the creator of eScent, a science fiction inspired device that can emit smells chosen by the user that can help improve mood or are simply pleasing.

Tillotson argues that “sense of smell is far more important than people realize. We all experience the sense of smell in completely different ways; this is because we all perceive olfaction differently. We also associate smells with particular memories, thoughts, places etc, and so this is why smell is so powerful to us as individuals on a daily basis.”

Tillotson took time to talk with Mash Stories about her research while also discussing the difficulties the sense of smell presents to writers.

Josh Flynn: Can you begin by telling readers about your career and how your interest in smell developed?

Jenny Tillotson: I am a Reader in Sensory Fashion in the School of Fashion & Textiles at Central Saint Martins, Visiting Scholar in the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and a Churchill Fellow. I received my PhD in Textiles from the Royal College of Art in 1997 and my BA in Fashion from Central Saint Martins in 1991. My research is inspired by science fiction and investigates the growing art and science of ‘Scentsory Design®’, which exists at the cross-over of emerging technologies, fashion, the science of smell and how it affects the human brain and senses.

I have been actively working in this ‘science fashion’ field for 15 years, exhibited internationally, published in science and design journals, and won numerous awards including a nomination from the ‘FiFi’ Awards for breakthrough progress in the fragrance industry. In 2000 I worked for an MIT Media Lab spin-out company in Wearable Computing (Charmed Technology Inc). I have consulted for NIKE, Unilever, collaborated with Philips and The North Face, and prior to my academic work I was a fashion stylist.  I work closely with my husband, a menswear designer who worked with Thierry Mugler in the past, and this is where the sci-fi influences come from.

The interest from smell came from working in the healthcare sector some years ago and wanting to build a wearable ‘emotional support system’ that enhances well-being through the sense of smell. I got into science as a fashion student initially inspired by a scientist in Cambridge who pondered ‘I wonder what makes the stars twinkle’, so my ‘science fashion’ story began through wondering and I am now validating my ideas through the science.

Josh: You are the founder of eScent®. Can you tell readers what that is and talk a bit about the science behind it?

Jenny: eScent® is an invention still under development. The initial product is a wearable, wireless device that delivers perfume in response to a sensed property, embedded in smart textiles or jewellery for the application and use of personalised fragrances. It has the ability to choose from an entire palette of scents changing over time, depending on how you are feeling, and forms a personal ‘scent bubble’ around the user. It can emit alcohol‐free fragrance to suit mood or occasion via a sensor or timer. Fragrances can be pre‐programmed from a smart phone and dispensed in controllable short bursts.

Josh: What is smell communication and how does it work?

Jenny: Smell communicates a message. My work brings fashion and fragrance together in an innovative and evocative manner, to create what I call a new ‘scentsory’ dimension. It integrates the last of the senses (besides taste) into wearable technologies. It describes the future of ‘scent communication’ as the power house that takes the user by surprise and changes their reality through one single whiff of fragrance.

Smell is a hotline to the brain plumbed into our memory. And although smell is an ancient and primitive sense and is the most under-used sense in design, I am trying to break this mold through emerging technologies using sensor networks in everyday items.

Up to 70% of our emotions may be evoked by the things we smell throughout the day, what we smell directly affects our memories and feelings. There is evidence called ‘mood mapping’ which proves that certain fragrances can change mood. I’m tapping into that research as a powerful communication system which is so under used in design/media – all through the sense of smell, one of the most emotional of the senses.

Smell is a very difficult medium to work with which explains why it is one of the last senses to feature in the wearable technology arena. There is increasing evidence in the growing field of ‘aromachology’ (i.e. the study between scent and psychology founded by the Sense of Smell Institute in 1989) that certain evidence-based essential oils can reduce stress by influencing mood, physiology and behaviour, emotional states and improve sleep. For example, it is known that citrus can alleviate stress and lavender can sedate, etc.

Josh: How does the sense of smell work? What makes something pleasing or repugnant to us?

Jenny: Smell is our most evocative and direct chemical sense. The olfactory bulb is the ‘hotline’ wired directly into the emotional centre in our brain and is strongly tied to life experiences. Scents are carried directly by the olfactory nerves to the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that acts as an emotional switchboard. It has access to our feelings, likes and dislikes. As human beings, we vary in our ability to smell depending on health, age, gender and what we have eaten, etc. In one day, we take approximately 20,000 breaths, so without knowing it we are smelling at all times. In the air that we breathe, we are able to recognise over 10,000 different odours (recently detailed in a paper published in SCIENCE in March 2014) – but unlike the other non-chemical senses (touch, vision, hearing) we cannot switch it off.

However, we do not understand the THEORY of smell. This has not been discovered. There are two theories: shape and vibration. Once scientists have discovered the true theory then it will open up many doors for the digitization of smell.

Science has proved that with evolution, living organisms have adapted so that they are inclined to shift towards ‘good’ situations that are favourable to their health and well-being and away from ‘bad’ situations that are less favourable. Human beings are the same; experiential representations of such stimuli have evolved as feelings of pleasure or displeasure, or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feelings. Odours are always experienced as either pleasant or unpleasant smells; we rarely find odours that are regarded as neutral smells.

According to Professor Tim Jacob, an world-leading expert in the psycho/physiology of olfaction at Cardiff University, this makes evolutionary sense, given that one of the primary functions of smell is to accept and approach a pleasant odour, or reject and avoid harmful substances (rancid food that’s gone off, etc). Smells therefore become associated with feelings or (positive or negative) ‘mood states’.

Josh: What are the common myths about our sense of smell?

Jenny: That ‘as humans we cannot smell very well’. This is a myth and has been disproved recently. In fact the human nose is much better at smelling than originally thought.

Another myth: ‘While many animals use odours to communicate, humans do not.’

This is not true. Several studies have demonstrated that individuals are able to identify correctly about 75% of the time whether odours associated with sweat or breath came from a male or female. Menstrual synchrony, a phenomenon in which women who live in close proximity for a period of time begin to have similar starting times for menstruation, has also been found to be related to smell.

Josh: How do smells influence memory?

Jenny: The most direct way our brain has of interacting and sharing information with the external world is through the tip of the nervous system inside our nose. Similar to the sense of taste (of which 90% of what is perceived as taste is smell), smell is part of the chemosensory system and one of the chemical senses. It is intimately plumbed into our memory and limbic system so that when we ‘sniff’ an object around us, the limbic system apprehends scent molecules floating from the object into the air, like a cloud, or wave. This helps us become aware of our personal smell sensory universe and makes our experiences of life – such as meeting and being intimate with people, tasting food, smelling places – and learning unique to us as an individual.

Josh: What should writers consider when writing about smell? How could they make use of the memory-triggering aspect of it?

Jenny: There is no language of smell – it is not the same as music, vision or sound which have their own language and vocabulary. This is odd because we know that:

We intuitively know the odours we smell from memory but cannot eloquently describe them in words; this is because the vocabulary simply does not exist beyond examples such as ‘peppermint-ish’ or ‘lemon-ish’ or the language of perfume such as ‘fruity’, ‘floral’ or ‘leather’.

Josh: In your opinion, which books and movies have managed to use the power of this sense effectively?

Jenny: Smell was vibrantly described in the science fiction story Desertion by Clifford D. Simak which illustrates life on a faraway planet:

“Pleasant scents seeped into his body. And yet scarcely scents, for it was not the sense of smell as he remembered it. It was as if his whole being was soaking up the sensation of lavender – and yet not lavender. It was something, he knew, for which he had no word.”

Also in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, he describes the scent organ:

“The scent organ was playing a delightfully refreshing Herbal Capriccio –rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, bail, myrtle, tarragon.. a series of daring modulations through the spice keys – and a slow return through sandalwood, camphor, cedar and new mown hay …..”

In Star Trek: ‘The Next Generation – Encounter at Farpoint’, the 21st military police led by ‘Q’ wore mood-enhancing clothing with in-built scent ‘sniffers’. They inhaled beneficial chemicals embedded in the chest piece of their uniforms to change their state of mind (Gerrold 1987), sometimes as an analgesic before they were killed.

This concept hugely inspired my clothing, as did ‘UBIK’ in 1969 written by Philip K.Dick which is about enhancing the mind by something you sniff/inhale. In this story, ‘UBIK’ was a mystical sparkling substance (from the word ‘ubiquity’) which was sprayed from a can to stabilise a nightmare and create a magic ‘reality in a can’ – similarly, in my work I talk about my clothing and jewellery developing a ‘scent bubble’ on demand around the wearer which enhances wellbeing, memory etc)’.

Josh: What do you feel writers get right when describing the sense of smell? What do they get wrong?

Jenny: We live in an audiovisual world and people put more emphasis on that. Writers underestimate the power of smell and scent and find it difficult because there is no language of smell. Scent can touch us like no other sense. It is the most emotional of all our senses and yet olfaction has been the forgotten sense. Twenty-first century technology has extended the sensory world of the artist everywhere we look. Sounds can be digitized and combined to give sublimely eccentric new music which in some cases exceed the evolutionary development of our brains; the painter has provocative colours, textures and materials which are used by artists to conjure up the images of the world inside our brains; computer graphical art outmatches the sensory repertoire of our central nervous system; taste is opening up new gourmet artforms for the culinary arts: edible photovoltaic food, molecular cuisine and shape-memory alloys, synthetic biology and other exotic organic compounds give us a new world of living architecture.

Until recently there has been little understanding of the way in which chemical information is translated into the way we perceive a fragrance. This is now changing with more designers working with scent and the digital technology and the need to create a perfume language and a new way of communicating. Once that happens it will really open up the door for writers to express themselves in a completely new way.

Josh: Thank you to Jenny for taking the time to talk with Mash Stories. You can keep up with Jenny’s work on her Twitter account. In the meantime, don’t ignore one of the most powerful senses when you write. And feel free to share some of your favorite examples of good smell descriptions in the comments.


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A writer and journalist, Josh Flynn is Mash Stories’s official journalist and one of the main blog writers. His essays, stories, and articles have appeared in The Indianapolis Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Slam Magazine, genesisNerdSpan, and Punchnel’s. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshflynn.