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Over the years, I’ve come to be wary of labels. In past lives, I have been identified as “the scientist who writes,” “the artist who does science,” “the designer who’s an artist,” and a lot of other ostracizing phrases. These words, I have felt, have caused more exclusion than inclusion, and has served to contain a person’s identity into one silly box as dictated by someone else. Isn’t each world enriched by the knowledge of the other?

My mother was a genetics professor in a family of painters and photographers; thus I had childhood diet of Punnett squares and DNA sequences, and would often smell formaldehyde on Mom when her students learned about Mendelian genetics through crossing flies. (Her students secretly called her the Drosophila Queen). My summers were always spent in art school and piano lessons. I ended up doing my degree in molecular biology and biotech while working as a correspondent for a national newspaper. In between PCR reactions, dissections, and other tedious experiments, I would take photographs, write, and make. Later, doing art in Barcelona made me miss the lab; I would often always show work that had a scientific slant of some sort, which puzzled some of my colleagues. Even the poetry I was writing was geeky.

Why these two? I’ve often looked at things with wonder, and thought that artists and scientists pursued their paths with the same curiosity.  I realized that I wouldn’t have one without the other; I could not choose between two halves of myself*. I loved the rigor of science; to be able to discover things and arrive at exact answers. I also loved the looseness and profundity of the arts; it allowed me a lot of time and opportunities to play. Doing science alone was too tedious; doing solely art felt like I was floating aimlessly. At the same time, I found that many of the questions I was fascinated with were investigated by artists and scientists alike; it came to the point where it was difficult to tell where the boundaries lay.

(*That line feels familiar. I believe I am quoting Remy from Ratatouille. Yes, a rat.)

Remy from Ratatouille. Copyright Pixar.

Admittedly, in the beginning of doing an MFA in Interaction Design, I had the notion that my own Venn Diagram of Personal Beliefs and Interests, which only had two circles…

…would look like this after an MFA, adding design to it, because good things come in threes:

But now as nearly two years have passed and I inch slowly towards graduation, I find myself thinking that this is my point of view of Art, Science, and Design as I have used them, based on the common themes of what I have done so far:

I think that up to this point, I have used design to contain the concepts and questions I have grappled with in art and in science. Things like “What makes you happy?” or “What do clouds look like?” or “What do you remember in a smell?” are questions that have both scientific and artistic facets to them, albeit in varying degrees. When I think about design in this way, I’m really happy that I chose interaction design as the third thing I wanted to study. Art and science are always the two broad areas that interested me, but it was design that allowed me to see how I can articulate these concepts to others. More importantly, design is a way for me to get other people to participate in what I do. I don’t think this makes one field better than the other; but it reminds me which hat I have to put on and which language I have to speak depending on where and when I am.

I think this why I’ve struggled (i.e. drowned in ennui) with making things that are purely utilitarian. Design without the poetry of art and science at its core feels hollow and flat. I don’t think I will ever be truly happy by making living out of making things less inconvenient, or by satisfying people who just want to make more money—it seems like the stuff midlife crises are made of. It’s not that they aren’t important, because they are. It’s just that my happiest ideas and moments have been borne out of uncomfortable situations—getting the flu, waiting for hours in line, being stood up by someone. But I have always tried to make the best of them—I fill sketchbooks from cover to cover, I scribble poetry on napkins, I talk to a lot of strangers. I think that if everything were to run too smoothly for me, my life would be dull and flat, and I would never have had the happy accidents that have led to all these amazing opportunities and adventures.

This reminds me of a pivotal conversation I had with one of my classmates, who said that I had to create a bridge between my mind and the mind of my audience.  This led to my joke about “brainbows“—a rainbow bridge between the mind of an artist (or scientist) and those whom they want to connect with. In art and in science, I usually worked by myself, secluded and uncaring about what other people thought. To care too much about other people was seen as a disadvantage if you wanted to do something authentic and brilliant.

But in design, it is imperative to care about other people, perhaps not everyone, but at least the user, the participant, or whatever word you wish to refer to the person you are designing for. And I think this is probably the best thing I have learned in the two years I have been in graduate school: to know how I can make my ideas as an artist or scientist accessible to everyone. The invisible walls I’ve seen that made art and science too abstruse and irrelevant to many are broken down by design, making these concepts available, relevant, and malleable by all, regardless of gender, language, education, and culture. And because of this, I like to think design creates bridges that people can walk on, so that they can allow the experience to be a part of their lives, thus enriching them. I’m hoping I will able to do that by posing simple, universal questions, and by coming from the point of view of joy and actual human contact, which I think is common for everyone, regardless of whether you have an MFA, or a PhD, or an MD, or no letters at all.

Part of writing this is because I have been perusing journals from five years ago, and man, one knows how much she’s grown when, upon reading, she alternates between “Aww” and “Yikes!” I’ve done the painful and hilarious rereading of events—I went through quite a blur of taekwondo belt tests, French classes, and mammalian dissections—back in the day when I still ate red meat and wrote on notebooks with lines. (I’ve since gone pescetarian, finally with a black belt, and now go for the blank Moleskines. Hurray for all of it.) I smiled when I saw familiar things—one of my earlier (and forgotten) entries in 2007 was entitled “Celebrating the Senses”—some things just persist from youth, I suppose.

I wonder then, if my future self would challenge this current view. Just as I am alternately charmed and exasperated at the naïveté of my 23-year-old self, perhaps my future self would read this post and smile knowingly at all the things she has yet to learn. Perhaps when we look at the totality of all our different identities, we will find that we are all of those things and none of those things at the same time.

And I think, isn’t that marvelous.

A confession: I can tell my entire personal history through smells—baby powder and shampoo, my parents’ laundry detergent, the sea while growing up in Southeast Asia, tea tree oil I used to treat teenage acne, old books, lab chemicals, studio paints, and the many kitchens and apartments in the cities I have lived in. Smell can transport me to space and time, and thus, can serve as my olfactory timeline.

Helen Keller, who could neither see nor hear, used smell as a portal, too:

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

Smell is our oldest sense and is the most powerful. About 2% of our genes are devoted to olfaction; other genes that can compare to this quantity are those for the immune system, which as we know are important for our survival. Hence, scientists believe that smell is more important than we think it is.

Smell is important for memory; this sense is processed in the brain’s limbic system where emotions are also processed. Hence, smell can be a very sentimental one. Impairment of smell has been found to be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and aging. In literature, Proust’s encounter with the madeleine is often referenced, where eating the biscuit unleashed memories. A similar scene in Pixar’s 2007 film Ratatouille involves the food critic Anton Ego being transported to his childhood while eating Remy’s ratatouille. (Note that while these episodes involve eating, it is the smell that evokes emotion; consider pinching your nose while eating a meal. You will not be able to properly taste it.)

Anton Ego in Ratatouille (copyright Pixar 2007)

This obsession with smell led me to conduct a blind smell experiment using smells that were printed via microencapsulation.

I asked the participants to close their eyes and to do two things: 1) Describe the smell (and if they could, guess what they are smelling), and 2) Talk about a memory that comes to mind. Their eyes were closed so that they would not be influenced by what the label on the card said. Their responses, which were usually streams of consciousness, were recorded. When appropriate, I prompted them with additional questions, such as when the episode occurred, or if they were stumped with identifying it, to focus on describing the smell (e.g. sweet, sour, etc.) or mention metaphorical associations with it (e.g. smells like a flower, a dish, etc). In between sniffing the cards, they had the option of smelling a hot cup of coffee to clear their sinuses, or to pause for a bit to take some fresh air.

The results of this experiment were quite astonishing. Here are some highlights and what I’ve learned from them:

Fresh air – Unsurprisingly, smells of what we buy do linger in our olfactory consciousness. This participant was interesting in that he could associate the smell with a product, recall a specific episodic memory, and associate the smell with a color.

“It smells like that freshening block you hang in a toilet …  Not that it seems like an air freshener. I definitely get that synthetic quality to it. I thought of this house that I went to once. It was with an ex-girlfriend—I was maybe 16 or 17. It was with her and her mother and it was her friend’s house, which I’ve probably went to once in my life. It reminds me of color as well—a pale pink peach color.”

Eucalyptus  – Some smells could not trigger a specific episodic memory, but concrete associations.

“It smells like a woman, some florally perfume … I guess i could smell a grandma, not mine but what I imagine … like a fat grandma with big boobs.”
Garlic – I was impressed by the associations of gender and abstract attributes.

“I don’t know what it smells like. But if it had a sex, it would be male, not female because for me it’s strong and a little cold.”

Strawberry – Some memories were specific to a particular event or interaction.

“It reminds me of Strawberry Shortcake, the doll. When I was in fourth grade, I had a friend… he had a younger sister who had one. We were in the playroom … Yeah, smells like strawberry, smells like neapolitan ice cream.”

Tea tree – This was striking because the smell on the card was very faint, and the participant had a minor cold. This made me think that smell can indeed be trained; the participant grew up in India, perhaps similar to my experience growing up in tropical Manila where the smells are more potent.

“It smells like winter, not in a plant way, because I’m usually sick in winter. smells like the cold balm I would use … some sort of a minty, oily smell. It’s [the balm] is strong; despite having a cold, I can still smell it. It also reminds me of a really famous clothing store in India because it uses organic dyes. Eucalyptus, tea tree oil or mint smell to it.”

Burnt rubber – This was particularly interesting because of the divergent associations these two participants had. One had a traumatic incident involving this smell while the other did not and so picked up on the sweeter notes of the smell.

“Whoa. This reminds me of something. It reminds me of going to the dentist. The smell of rubber gloves maybe? Having a hand placed in my mouth. Getting braces … in the 6th-8th grade. Teeth started to hurt smelling this.”

“It reminds me of my grandfather’s old house they [grandparents] used to live in. It’s not a cooking smell, it’s not as fresh. It’s sort of a flowery smell close to parma violets. Lavender flower, I suppose. Maybe it’s something between flowers and sweets. It reminds me of a specific part of the house which is to the back of it … a cupboard that had sweet things and flowers. The memory made me smell the thing, but the smell itself didn’t remind me of these things.”
While memories and associations of these smells are diverse, smell is indeed transportive, and is strong enough to take a person back to a specific time and place, remembering actual people, objects, and interactions. What could we do with this underestimated sense? How can we improve our memories, our relationships, and ultimately, our lives, by consciously engaging with smell?

Update: The resulting project from this experiment is An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities, a book of my smell memories.

Main References
Angier, Natalie. “The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine.” New York Times, 5 August 2008.
Herz, Rachel S. and Schooler, Jonathan W. A naturalistic study of autobiographical memories evoked by olfactory and visual cues. The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 115, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 21-32.
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