This week, Pooneh and I talked about the exhibit at the Museum of Feelings that she had gone to see the previous week. Pooneh described that the scent installations were in enclosed tubes that she saw as very relaxing but also as having a message and an emotion. We were both very interested in the immersive quality of an experience that encompasses all the senses. Could we connect this idea to our ongoing dialog about the role of scent in relationships?
Can we capture the smell of a person? Can we create a portrait via scent alone? Can we make a “message in a bottle” that is a personal ad? How about a scratch-and-sniff personal add? Can we embed this smell in a pillow or a box or an actual portrait? Can we make you feel so close to someone you have never met? Can you fall in love with the closeness and the warmth of someone you have never met?
We talked about the possibility of creating pillows with the scent of a person. I used a body pillow during my pregnancy and I think I bonded with it. There is something about the physicality of something large and huggable that is very viscerally comforting. I thought of boyfriend pillows and body pillows.
Pooneh described how she got to know the olfactory artist Gayil Nalls, and that one of Gayil’s great talents would be to get to know an individual and brew a scent that was almost like a love potion. Somehow this scent might lead the person to their true love. The lure of a love potion may be one of our oldest, most powerful, dreams. How is a scent a love potion? Does it read who you are and tell you about your other half, so that you can better find them? Does it affect the environment in other ways so that you and they may find each other?
Pooneh also mentioned that she was a magnet for animals of all kinds - furry ones and stingy ones. Could we make an animal love potion from her biology that anyone could use to get along better with animals?
I immediately think of amplifying someone’s smell to either make them more attractive or perhaps just more find-able by potential mates. Amplifying someone’s smell may be .. less than pleasant though! Perhaps, more sinister, one could create a mask of someone else’s smell and go into the world wielding their special powers of attraction, occupying their unique space in the world, potentially subverting or polluting the unconscious sense of their presence.
My friend Amy Anthony is conducting a workshop on aromatherapy and how to create candles with beautiful smells and beautiful purpose using essential oils. A year or so ago, I asked Amy to create a gift for a friend of mine who was getting married. This was a long time friend I had not seen in a while, we had gone through many difficult and wonderful times together. I wanted to give her peace of mind and Amy nodded as if I was not insane and created a body lotion. Amy is a wonderful mix of artist and scientist herself and she plays with the neuroscience and biology of essential oils in a subtle and poetic way. Pooneh and I are interested in investigating techniques of capturing and manipulating scent.
We have discussed the possibility of using clothes of volunteers to capture their smell and placing them in pillows or similar objects. In a research projects on this topic, volunteers are often asked to not bathe or use deodorant, because this changes their smell. Like we’ve learned recently, these chemicals either mask or outright destroy the natural fauna of our bodies that creates the smells in the first place. For me, though, we are nature and nurture, biology and culture. I am not just my microbes and body - although I am that - but I am also that which I construct each day in such small gestures as chosing an outfit, chosing my words, and yes, chosing a deodorant and a perfume. So, in exploring characterizing a person through their scent, I cannot restrict myself to their biological smell, but must include everything else about them. Their laundry detergent, cigarettes, coffee, the smell of their city or of their pet…
One of the things that was very interesting in our conversation was that as we brainstormed, Pooneh often returned to the idea of creating or manipulating these scents and then asking volunteers for their response. Perhaps due to her scientific training, her point of view takes on more of an experimental bent. I think I am most interested in the creation of an object and an internal experience, where Pooneh is most interested in characterizing and investigating results - I think this may be how our collaboration takes shape. I asked her to discuss further what she would ask participants and why.
Last year I attended the brain stimulation conference in Manhattan and I submitted pictures of the NYC Neuromodulation event for the Photo Contest. As a result, they offered me a free registration code for the NYC Neuromodulation 2017 Conference.
Getting back to our topic, Joana and I had a fruitful conversation. It seems we have many things in common. Together we were thinking of seeing something new arise from our understanding of one another. We both like to run the microbiome project and meantime we are thinking about working on some other experiments. I suggested the idea of pillow project in which Joana was very interested. So what is it about?
Previous studies showed lavender is effective in inducing sleep. Lavender pillows are usually very small pillows filled with lavender. They are not large enough for sleeping on, but rather, a little sachet of comfort to tuck in beside the person at night. These pillows promote relaxation, and help people enjoy a good night sleep.
Visit our other residency group's blogs HERE
Pooneh Heshmati is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist, physician, and post doctoral researcher at Northwell Health in New York.
Joana Ricou is an award-winning NYC-based artist, and creative director of Regenerative Medicine Partnership for Life.