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Smell

Perhaps as a welcome to living this near to the equator, I contracted a tropical bacterial infection during my first month in Singapore. This resulted to three weeks of congestion and mucus. There were a lot of very embarrassing social situations and a consistent need for tissues. But the most awful thing about it was the fact that I lost my sense of smell. This is absolutely catastrophic for someone who studies perception. For one who once tested the link between smell and memories. For one who made an olfactory memoir. For one who can tell cities apart by smells.

The medical term for this is anosmia. (Check this video and article on NYTimes.com for people who permanently lost their sense of smell or were born without it.)

If anything, I am grateful it only lasted a few weeks. There is nothing like valuing something more when you’ve temporarily lost it. To make it a learning experience, I pretended my anosmia was an experiment.

So, how was life without my sense of smell?

The smallest activities were voided of their pleasures. I could not smell the mint on my toothpaste, the citrus crispness of a sliced lemon, the aroma of coffee, the freshness of new bedsheets. Perfume, which was a daily habit and a mood booster, became unnecessary. Each object blurred into the next, unclearly defined.

Without smell, I was unable to detect the orange juice spilling on the opaque countertop. I could not gauge the weather, because I could no longer the smell rain or heat through the window. My days lost a dimension—like the difference between experiencing a movie on a bad screen and in HD. Life became very dull; a mere shadow of its former self. It was then that I realized that in many ways, we can smell movement, and therefore stories. Smell made things more real.

Our senses of smell and taste are related. And so without smell, I couldn’t taste anything either, apart from being able to determine if a dish was sweet, sour, salty or bitter, more or less. This robbed me of the joys of eating. I ate a lot of spicy food, mainly to clear my congested sinuses and because most of the time, spiciness that was the only thing that registered.

On a less depressing note, I learned to better appreciate the texture of food. And because I could not taste anything, I stopped eating food that was unhealthy. I don’t recall a time in my life when I ate less chocolate. Or drank less coffee. Because really, what was the point? I may have lost a couple of pounds, but I was unhappy.

There were other minor benefits, I suppose. The delight and wonder of things faded, but so did their disagreeableness. I thought it was great not to be able to smell smoke or public toilets.  In the gym, in taekwondo class, in crowded subways, I could not be offended by body odor. Hurray!

However, not being able to smell noxious substances is dangerous. It is what tells us if there is a gas leak or if our food has spoiled. And another problem with not smelling is that while nothing and no one stinks,  you don’t know if you do.

Eventually, as my colleagues told me that my cold was probably an infection, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a dose of antibiotics. As the medicine kicked in and I became better, my sense of smell started to come in short spurts, probably analogous to a blind person seeing flashes of light. Whoa, that basket of fruit actually registered. Oh my, cornflakes tasted like cornflakes. I can smell my shampoo again.

Having my sense of smell come back to me was like getting out of a bubble. I realized that like smell made me a part of my environment because I could breathe it into myself and establish a continuity with the world. Slowly, I felt more alive. I had never been so overjoyed to smell garbage again.

 

P.S. Huge thanks to the awesome staff of the University Health Center of the National University of Singapore, who took me in past closing time last Friday when they realized I was close to passing out. Kudos!

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Walking around the Singapore Botanic Gardens, I come across the Evolution Garden, which simulates the evolutionary story of plants on earth before mankind ever came to be. It’s hard not to think of the apocalypse here. Half an hour before, I just squeezed through the MRT crowds. It feels odd to be suddenly alone. I was struck by how different it smells compared to the city and the rest of the gardens. It smells of rain and moss. There is a dampness in the air, but it does not feel heavy. It feels like an island washed after a heavy storm, like a tiny planet that went through a car wash.

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The Evolution Garden in the Singapore Botanic Gardens

I wonder about how the end of the world will smell like, once human activity has pushed it too much. Does it smell like something just washed, or something burning? Is it a “unpleasant” smell? Perhaps there is more than one smell—an olfactory palette that signifies a climate change apocalypse? Can a man with a cold smell it, or just the most sensitive of trained dogs? Will there be a range of scent—are we dead, or almost dead? Will we have an apocalyptic nose?

Strange questions, but among the many I’m asking here on this side of the world.

 

One afternoon, I accidentally got off the wrong floor of my East Village apartment. Each floor in the building looked exactly the same, and yet, for some reason, I felt that something was amiss. Wait, it smells different, I thought.

Smell, the most underestimated and underappreciated of our senses, is everywhere. In Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, he tells the story of a woman to whom everything smelled vile. The condition, cacosmia, kept her indoors for years, until a doctor diagnosed her to have a form of epilepsy that was interfering with her olfactory bulb. Once given the proper medication, the woman could recall the specific moment when her sense of smell started to become normal. The room she was in started to change in perspective, as though it were moving. It seems that smell affects our sense of space.

Curiously, things that we may not immediately attribute smells actually give off odors. Here are some examples:

1. Rain

Can you smell when a storm is coming?

You know when you (or animals) can “smell” that rain might come? Well, it turns out that you’re not imagining it. Rain does give off a smell; three of them, in fact. These are ozone, petrichor, and damp earth, according to Daisy Yuhas of Scientific American.

(HT @sciam)

2. Space

Space can remind astronauts of steak, metal and welding fumes, among other things.

Perhaps “ordinary” isn’t the word I would use for space, but it’s quite fascinating that something that primarily awes us visually can also smell otherworldly. Megan Garber of The Atlantic reports that astronauts describe the smell of space in various ways, such as “seared steak,” “hot metal,” and “welding fumes.”

3. Tumors

Dogs as cancer detectors

Dogs, whose sense of smell is 100,000 times more sensitive than that of humans. Last year, German researchers reported that dogs can detect the smell of cancer, specifically lung cancer. When cells start to mutate because of the disease, they give off volatile odors that dogs can detect.

Hacking into olfaction

Scientists are increasingly finding ways to elucidate the complex process of olfaction. In 2010, Harvard scientists engineered mice that were capable of “smelling light.” The same year, German scientists also engineered flies that were capable of perceiving light for unpleasant smells.

In a conversation with Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, we exchanged ideas about the senses, particularly about smell. She mentioned a book she was reading called The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz. A part of it discussed olfaction as a way for human beings to choose mates and how the birth control pill may be a culprit for divorce.

The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz

Research suggests that birth control affects women’s taste in men. It’s all in the MHCs, or major histocompatibility complexes, hidden in the scent of men. Studies show that females prefer men whose MHCs differ from their own, perhaps to increase chances of  survival—the resulting offspring will then bear more diverse MHC profiles.

But being on the pill creates a preferential shift towards men with similar MHCs. Relationship troubles can then start when the woman gets off the pill; she begins to be attracted to MHC-dissimilar men and is less attracted to the MHC-similar guy she’s with.

In simpler terms, being on the pill can make you attracted to Mr. Wrong, and you realize it when you get off the pill.

(Read more at Psychogical Science.)

Image via Penning Perfumes

What happens when you mix olfaction and poetry? In this brilliant proejct, Penning Perfumes explores the intersection between these two seemingly unrelated worlds. It is the brainchild of “olfactress” (don’t you just love that word?) Odette Toilette and poet/editor Claire Trevien. Poets pen new pieces of work in response to mystery fragrances while perfumers create new fragrances based on poems.

(More via The Guardian. HT @brainpicker)

Speaking at my first TEDx conference was a challenge. It was not just because it was a great platform for ideas, but because of the timing, design, and execution needed to pull off four interactive talks in one day.

TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness. Photo by Chris Randall

The theme for TEDxNewHaven was The Art and Science of Happiness. My goal for the talks was two-fold: to engage the audience in something interactive in the course of the day, and to enable them to view their senses as tools by which to achieve happiness. To achieve these, I had to produce 200 “sense kits” that contained physical, non-digital formats of my projects: HugPrints, Rorsketch, Smellbound, and EatPoetry.

Round One. Photo by Liz Danzico

First Talk: Touch

My first talk was about using our sense of touch. I presented HugPrints, my project where I am attempting to hug everyone in the world and getting visual feedback through a specially designed thermochromic vest. I asked volunteers to come up the stage to hug me.

Hugging on stage. Don’t you just love it? Photo by Chris Randall

Afterwards, I asked the rest of the audience to pull out the HugPrints cards in their sense kits, which contained hugging instructions so they can hug each other (if they wished).

Are you getting enough hugs a day? Photo by Chris Randall

Second Talk: Sight

For the second talk, I explained Rorsketch and first engaged the audience in a guessing game of what clouds looked like and then revealed what drawings I made. After doing this project for a while, I wasn’t surprised about how some people were calling out the same things, while other clouds had very different interpretations.

You know what my favorite Pixar movie is! Photo by Ruoxi Yu.

Yes, it’s a dragon! Photo by Chris Randall

I then asked the audience to pull out the blue Rorsketch cards and the Sharpies in their kits, and they drew their own interpretations on the clouds printed on their cards. To encourage them to draw, I did a live drawing session on a big cloud on stage.

Drawing on a cloud. The cloud I sketched on was taken by Nikki Sylianteng. Photo by Liz Danzico

One of my fellow speakers, Nima Tshering, sent me his cloud drawing. (Thanks, Nima!)

A fairy grandma with a baby by Nima Tshering

Third Talk: Smell, Hearing and Taste

I explained two projects for this post-lunch session: Smellbound and EatPoetry. First, I explained the connection between smell and memory and had the audience remove the Smellbound postcard which contained a printed smell. I showed them the book I made, An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities. Afterwards, I read them After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost while they ate the apple lollipop inside their kits.

“Now please remove another envelope from your kits…” Photo by Chris Randall

Fourth Talk: Happiness and the Senses

For my fourth talk at the end of the conference, I summarized how we can use our senses to be happy. The key points were that we are all equipped with these tools; i.e. we all had the capacity to hug our loved ones, to interpret a cloud, to smell a memory, and to connect poetry with food, and that if we paid more attention to the world around us, it would promote our feelings of well-being and optimism. I also explained my own explorations with happiness by showing submissions from DrawHappy, as well as what I’ve learned from the project so far.

Photo by Liz Danzico

What Worked, and What I Would Do Differently Next Time

All the sleepless nights making sure all 200 kits had the right contents were definitely called for. So much craft and attention were given to every single detail—each postcard had to be sealed in an envelope so people can only view them as instructed, the envelopes had to match the main color of each project’s logo for easy recall, each postcard had to be branded and oriented in a specific direction, each kit had to contain envelopes in a particular order and needed both a Sharpie and a lollipop. Anything less would have taken away from the experience or would have confused people. Doing something onstage so that people can mirror my actions was also important, and getting all the props together also was something I had to keep in mind in addition to the actual slides.

I’ve also been onstage on different occasions and it was interesting to feel these variegations of audience contact. When performing for the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, I had to inhabit a certain character and, depending on the piece we were doing, had to maintain a certain mystique. When doing poetry readings just as myself, there was a bit of conversation with the audience when I talk about the process of writing, but during the reading of the actual poem, it was just myself and the text. I felt this while reading the Frost poem to the TEDx crowd—the entire hall was dead silent in contrast to all the other times I was up there. (That was quite fun, actually.) But doing a talk that involved not just a Keynote presentation but an actual creative activity was another world altogether—it’s difficult to assess if everyone was enjoying the activity, although what was great about having a particularly open audience such as this one was that they weren’t afraid of trying new things.

For the next time I do something of this nature, I would have a card that had explicit instructions not to use the objects inside the kit unless asked. Although I anticipated this by making sure the envelopes were sealed, I did catch at least one person eating their candy before lunch. (We were running a bit late, and I suppose he was hungry.) One thing about having a sealed and long candy stick was that it affords a long eating session; they wouldn’t have finished it to begin with and they could just put the candy back in the plastic and in the kit. Hard candy was definitely the way to go.

Also, I would have split the third talk (Smellbound and EatPoetry) into two and let each project have its own 10 minutes. Thus, I would have placed EatPoetry for the fourth talk and followed it with a short summary of the senses. When I went up for the last talk and said that “Ok, I’m not going to make you do anything now,” I could swear I felt the disappointment of some people. If the schedule allowed it, giving each project its own time in the spotlight would have allowed the audience to absorb the concept more fully, instead of rushing to the next project right away. I can’t wait until I develop these projects more and more, and see what I will ask people to do the next time.

Finally

I have to say, I love this format of getting the audience to actually do something creative in a talk, instead of me just standing there telling them about myself. Thanks again to the audience for being open to these ideas, my friends and colleagues for helping me pull this off, and to the wonderful team at TEDxNewHaven who worked tireless to make it all happen!

Thanks to Kate Russell and Liz Danzico, my plus two!

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.