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Memory

Returning to a city after many years is both pleasurable and vexing.

You are both resident and stranger. The shapes, sounds, and smells have both changed and remained the same.

My three major “homes” so far—Manila, New York, and Barcelona—are all port cities. In both historic and modern times, they have been the site of international trade, cultural intermixing, and political upheavals. Their faces dissolve and stabilize with the ebb and flow of both tide and time.

I am reminded of Cities of You, a beautiful project by Brian Foo, a web developer and “joy evangelist” whom I first encountered online when he submitted a sketch for DrawHappy.

Cities of You is a project that envisions people as imaginary places. It was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Each artwork represents a person and also a relationship. Brian writes:

“I travel through each city and describe their special properties—how the buildings are built, how the people live, its history, culture, and reputation. As the project progresses, I revisit some cities, describing how they evolve over time or enter unexplored parts of the cities. The intended result is to be able to imagine relationships as dynamic spaces in which one can visit, walk through, and explore.”

I enthusiastically backed his Kickstarter project, which surpassed his initial goal of $2,000 and raised $11,000. The project is the publication of the first 41 cities he designed. His book is a gorgeous labor of love, alive with drawings, paintings, and prose. An overwhelming response from his supporters also led him to upgrade all the rewards, including a lifetime of gifts. (Yes, you read that right. I and 140 other backers are looking forward to receiving annual presents for the rest of our lives.)

Cities of You, volume 1. Image by Brain Foo via his Kickstarter project page

A couple of weeks ago,  Brian drew me as a city, too. Voila, I’m City #44! It’s quite an honor. Even though we haven’t known each other for very long, I think he nailed it:

“If you walk through the city of Orynnaci, the buildings are tall, bare, and ordinary. However, if you stare at a building, look away, then look back again, the building may change. Or sometimes, a building can disappear, or merge with another one. As a tourist, you may begin to recognize past cities you have visited if you stare long enough. Some buildings lose their form entirely. Walk down Main Street and you will see most citizens standing still with their head tilted back, tracing shapes with an outstretched arm. On the face of city hall, three words are inscribed in Latin, loosely translating to ‘Imagination, Perception, Metaphor’.” —Brian Foo

City #44: Orynnaci
24 x 18″, Gouache and Colored Pencil on Paper
Image and Text copyright by Brian Foo

Visit the project’s site here.

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Due to my fascination with smell and its relationships with memory, I wrote and published a book that contains smells from Manila, New York and Barcelona—three cities I have lived in and have given me a lot of memories.

Each spread contains the memory on the left and the actual smell micro-encapsulated and printed on paper on the right.

Here’s one from Manila:

Burnt rubber
On busy streets
Particularly EDSA
The site of many a revolution
You can smell the worn tires.

Here’s one from New York:

Pumpkin pie
My first ever pumpkin pie was in 2007 on a martial arts retreat.
I remember not just the pie, but the knife lessons. We had a meditation room and went to a cemetery. We broke arrows with our throats.

Here’s one from Barcelona:

Strawberry
A birthday picnic for Harriet, up on Montjuic but closer to the museum. We wrote poems on a green Olivetti typewriter that we decorated with wildflowers.

Here are some people smelling my memories:

More photos up on Flickr.

Hello. My name is Catherine and I would like to give everyone in the world a hug.

I’m a hugger. I can’t help it. When I see someone I know, I just go for it as a greeting with barely a thought.

There are perfectly good explanations for this. I was raised in the Philippines, land of extremely happy and friendly people. I also grew up with a lot of stuffed animals. I still sleep with a pillow I’ve had with me from the crib—it’s the only material possession that has been with me forever. And dang it, it feels good. Hugging releases oxytocin, the hormone that promotes love and trust. In fact, studies have shown that a lack of human interaction, such as touching, is detrimental to growth and development. Touch ranks up there with food and water as a basic need.

But I do realize that not all people like to hug others. The idea of touching as a greeting is largely cultural, and I’ve had to adapt accordingly, depending on where I’ve lived and whom I was interacting with. In the Philippines, I hugged. In Spain, I kissed (both cheeks). Here in America, I shake hands. It is especially in the latter that I’ve felt that people respond the least positively to hugs. Many people, I’ve observed, have an invisible “wall” that illustrates their personal space. Touch may be considered as an intrusion, an interruption, or a threat. On the other hand, a hug can also be a sign of great physical intimacy that is only reserved for one’s closest family and friends.

I wanted to investigate our perception of touch. Moreover, I want this project to be a personal reminder of being physically connected to people.

Thus comes HugPrints. I designed a thermochromic (temperature-sensitive, color-changing) vest, so that it was possible to see evidence of the hug. The purple fabric temporarily turns to blue when touched. Right after each hug, photos of the front and the back of the vest are taken, showing where I was touched and how warm (literally) the person is. The patterns people intentionally and unintentionally make have been an interesting exploration of human contact.

I also record the ambient temperature of the environment. Hugging people indoors versus outdoors would give different intensities of color change.

I would love to give you (yes, you!) a hug. But hey, I would love it more if you give your loved ones and perhaps that sad-looking stranger next to you one, too! Visit the project site for more details.

Ready? Go!

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.