Oct -Nov, 2011
At Monell Chemical Senses Center I'm researching unconscious sensing of human smell signatures for art works with a focus on developing the human as a sensing instrument. My premise is that the whole of nature is communicating with olfactory signals largely disregarded by humans despite their effects on human behavior and emotions. This is a continuation of my inquiry into the human plume, and the PLUME collaboration with molecular scientist Dr Richard Newcomb.
My intention in visiting Monell was to findout what could be in the human plume and if we have olfactory receptors to monitor humans and the environment even if we may not have reached a level of recognition.
As Dr Reed succinctly puts it ‘we’re studying how we smell and how we smell’
Thanks to Dr Gary Beachamp, Director, Monell Chemical Senses Center for inviting me to the Sponsors meeting where I gained an overview of the latest research at Monell. Dr Beachamp's illuminating reflection on the central problem of olfaction : 'how does a molecule manage to affect consciousness?' amplifies my belief that the realm of olfaction is ripe for creativity because its territory is largely uncharted.
And a big thankyou to all the faculty and staff at Monell... more posts will follow...
Many thanks to Dr. Danielle Reed who hosted my residency. Daniel invited me to the Monell Center, organised the residency, and picked me up from the airport in the middle of the night and even provided me with a bag of scrumptious midnight feast goodies--much appreciated after long flight!
I asked Gaza correspondent Julie Webb -Pullman, journalist forScoop Independent Newsabout the smells of stress that she encounters in conflict areas. Julie reported back "its like machine oil, a kind of heavy slightly metallic oily smell - heavier than that smell that comes out of the sewing machine, but not quite as strong as used engine oil or axel grease, but that kind of smell - if there was a range with sewing machine oil at one end and axel-grease at the other, it would about 85% towards the axel grease end, with a sharp/sour sweat edge...."
Dr Charles Wysocki : Stress alters body odour, and is detectable by smell—what we don’t know is if you smell body odour from someone who is stressed do you become more stressed? Post-traumatic stress can also be elicited by smells that people were exposed to in traumatic situations—in some cases the smells will elcit fear, eg Diesel.
One's DNA for the genes involved in creating signature odours from the skin and olfactory receptors can be analysed, but the data is not conclusive. There's not only a genetic variation in the the biological receptors of each person but also variation on both perceptual data and molecular descriptors of fragrance materials....so it isn't yet possible to predict how people may or may not experience smells.
Matt Kirkey – weighing the mass of DNA. Matt --whose desk was next to mine in the laboratory at Monell offered a very simple explanation of genotyping and DNA : "DNA is the recipe".
On sniffing the wind of the molecular genetic revolution and the interpretation of genetic information: Peter R Wills, in Life Requires Genetic Representation and vice versa-Consequences for ALife, writes : No matter how refined a description of a cell’s molecular biology may be, if it implicitly assumes that the specificity of molecular biological processes originates solely in genetic sequence information then it fails as a scientific explanation because it gives no account of the origin of the means of interpretation of the information…
Dr Joel Mainland's research goal is to develop a predictive model relating molecular structure and olfactory perception using a combined psychophysical and molecular approach. I'm excited about Joel's quantitative analysis research and finding patterns in molecular descriptions; although its not qualitative it somehow reminds me of qualitative cross-sensory translations of visual patterns into music, eg those at Paso del Zute
At Paso del Zute in Granada, Spain, I experienced José L. Rojas's unique and brilliant translations of perceptual data into patterns that could be played by the audience on real instruments.
Could we assign a colour, a sound, a flavour, a texture, a temperature, a weight to each molecular descriptor?
I will begin by 'sniffing out'what we may or may not be able to smell of the molecular behaviours: intensity, threshold,pleasantness,quality
Proprioception the perception of movement or position could could be employed; eg stereognosis suggests the ability to perceive and recognize the form of an abject using tactile cues--words o text, in the mouth. Also, Alexander Melvlle Bell's Visible Speech (1867)
Smell to Sound Device
Brian Harris & Raewyn Turner. This is our 'electronic' nose which converts smells into music notes. During my recent artist residency at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Sept-Oct 2011 I tested the device on various compounds used in the lab to train rats, and on two types of mouse urine. The device is at the first stage of development. We intend to further develop this for art installation/performance. Thanks to Dr Michael Tordoff, Dr. Yamazaki, Mary Ann Opiekun, Tillia and Monell, Chris Davison, Fulbright NZ and CoLab NZ
- We will test smells that wouldn’t be readily recognizable, as well as compounds that elicit specific anosmias as outlined by Dr Charles Wysocki; Dr Wysocki mentioned Albert Blakeslee’s study in 1930’s –people can’t smell some varieties of freesias. An earlier study in 1918 found similar in people smelling verbena flowers...
other known anosmic compounds are:
- Benzy salycialate
- Geosmin (musty)
- Isovaleric acid
- Jegers ketal ( woody amber)
- 3-methyl-2-hexemoic acid (underarm sweaty odour)
- 3-hydroxy hexanoic acid ( human sweaty)
- muscone ( musky)
- pentadecalectore (musky)
- skatole ( fecal odour)
I'm interested in fugitive smells, in particular beta ionone and the smell of violets. Some people are anosmic to beta ionone at certain concentrations. The French Bonapartists chose as their emblem the violet . The French government fought, by decree on and off, until the year 1874 any reproduction of a violet because it was the symbol of the Bonapartists.
I worked on a video on memory and anosmia while at Monell Chemical Senses Center --hoping to finish it soon. Yukiko who appears in the film couldn't smell violets.
Two aspects that Dr. George Preti pointed out about non-odiferous olfactory molecules:
- We don’t notice volatile organic molecules unless they become irritants –they don’t affect/bind with olfactory receptors—
- They may be at below olfactory threshold because the volatility is at a very low level, ie, very few molecules present.
Note :Taste smell integration: can smell below-threshold if used with a sweetener as this is an integration (Dr.Pamela Dalton)
Thanks toDr Rocky Parker who studies the role that steroid hormones play in the production and perception of chemical signals. Rocky suggested that we use the pentatonic scale for the music because its cultural sound that is suitable for improvisation.
Also of interest is A Fruity Note: Crossmodal associations between odors and musical notes by Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence ..."Indeed, in a recent study, Mesz et al. (2011) asked a number of musicians to improvise short pieces of music in accordance to taste words (bitter, salty, sour, and sweet).....The words elicited consistent and reliable musical patterns."
It is what it isn't
Fugitive smells:Dr Glen Golden is testing the quality of smell, ie its character to see if its true that smells change their quality at different concentrations, eg cinnemaldehyde, diphenal methane.
Raewyn Turner & Brian Harris. This is our 'electronic' nose which converts smells into music notes. During my recent artist residency at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Sept-Oct 2011 I tested the device on various compounds used in the lab to train rats, and on two types of mouse urine. The device is at the first stage of development. We intend to further develop this for art installation/performance. Thanks to Dr. Bruce Kimball and Monell Chemical Senses Center, USDA,, Chris Davison, Fulbright NZ and CoLab NZ
Cinnemaldehyde: when there are changes in intensity it changes from geranium floral at low concentration to orange at high concentration.
If this (floral—low conc)means that(orange –high conc)
And that indicates those (cinnemaldehyde)
Then after a while if you’re given those (cinnemaldehyde)
At low concentration, and it smells to you like that(floral)
Then you’ll associate this (floral) with that (orange)
Then if those (cinnemaldehyde) is actually half as much as that(orange)
Even though they’re the same
That(orange) won’t mean this (floral)
I asked Dr.George Preti about methods of training myself to detect unconscious and below-threshold human skin vapours, with a view to recognizing olfactory signals expressed by humans, like fear, disappointment, etc.
Note: MHC (major histocompatibility complex) accounts for 30% of odour.
In terms of science, olfactory comprehension seems to be gridlocked by the complexity of interaction between olfactory receptors and the odour molecule and so the central problem of olfaction remains: how the olfactory molecule manages to affect the brain, consciousness and emotions. The mystery of olfaction offers a new arena of discovery. We are all sniffing in the revolutionary wind of genetics.
Dr Preti prepared a GCO Olfactory Gas Chromatograph session so that I could use my nose to detect human skin vapours emitted from a column—specifically skin extracts from ten older Caucasian women, and qualify my experience of them by verbal perceptual descriptions
- Description: naming the qualities
- Perception: noticing the feelings that arose in me in response to them.
I was wondering which smells I would miss because the experience is not continuous its interrupted by the breath in and the breath out. I look at my notes about an ephemeral experience and the descriptions are all 'things'....
1.47 Dark granules
2.47 Moth balls what was she feeling?
2.58 Sweet soap how does she feel?
3.05 Cosmetic--Nivea cream ( faint). complex
4.30 Biscuits, sweet cookies
6.16 Tree bark
8.00 Match smoke
9.00 Corner of a room/dirt/old
11.58 disappoint .
13.37 Basalmic vinegar. disinterest
15.04 Old book pages
15.23 Vinegrette dressing
16.15 Air in a plastic bag
16.36 visual forms : music slopes
18.02 Vinegar in an oily frypan
22.29 Sourish in a bus
24.20 Stuffy air interior
26.55 Clothes, naphthalene
Warm heater, clothes on a heater
28.00 Wool carpet
34.00 Rain on wool/wet woolen garment
Hot heater/heating iron
Rain on hot wall
About feeling breathless
I feel breathless about being in America-- the accents, the expressions, the food, the architecture...
When talking about background odours with Dr. Pamela Daltonshe pointed out that familiar background odour is only noticed when there is a change. I realized that I was feeling breathless in part because my familiar background of odor had been replaced with the one in Philadelphia.
What matters to the sensory system is change and contrast, so when background odours disappear it gives us a feeling of ‘a diminished saturation of the world’ (Dalton).
Municipialities and city councils regulate emissions in permissible odour units (PELS) which determine the thresholds.
The local nasal ranger detects and records odours from a site using a: At a pig farm, for example the nasal ranger sniffs and monitors 12-16 hours per day, 7 days per week to make quantatitive odour data
Champagne and Climate Change
At Monell I've become interested in the bite in the mouth, the cough, ( Dr Paul Wise ) the remedy (sweet cough mixture), and carbonation. Dr Wise has a word scale chart for rating the sensory experience of the strength of the bite, burn, cooling, and warming sensations which are part of the trigeminal sensory system.
Dr Wise pointed out that a lot of learning that makes us avoid or approach is not hardwired—if a burning or tingling sensation-- we tear, we cry— the trigeminal system is a warning system for potentially damaging material, a defense mechanism that indices blinking, tearing, nose run, coughing, gasping….
What is the relationship between carbonation in the mouth, acidification in the environment, and calcium deficiency ?
Dr Michael Tordoff pointed out that life longs for calcium. We can taste calcium in the bitterness of green vegetables.
The sensation of carbonation is primarily touch -- carried by the trigeminal nerve
The most widely consumed irritant is CO2 --in carbonated drinks.
My brain and gut remember all the foods that I've eaten in the past, all the tastes, all the calories...and i want more, I'm familiar with them, I long for them.
What does it mean if I'm longing for CO2?
• The burning of hydrocarbons creates heat and CO2. The Co2 precipitates into the ocean acidifying the seawater and rain on earth.The oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and this is causing chemical changes by making them more acidic. The acidification creates a calcium deficiency that may be affecting the shells of sea creatures and the formation of birds eggs. The Royal Society: Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide http://www.scar.org/articles/Ocean_Acidification(1).pdf
- Carbonation in the mouth is experienced by the brain. The CO2 in fizzy drinks, pop rocks and champagne is permeable through skin, diffuses into tissue in the mouth and is carbonized by carbonic anhydrase, an enzyme in flesh which causes rapid acidification and hence the bite, activating some pain and cool endings. Dr Bruce Bryant is investigating sensations, looking at unused or unpracticed senses and how different chemicals can stimulate illusions. His research includes sensory convergences, eg cool objects feel heavier than warm objects; and precepts about hot, cold and pain. Pain is not always experienced as pain.
The background of burnt hydrocarbons makes us cough
An article appeared in the local paper recently regarding the Our Far South Project where a group of New Zealanders will be heading to Antarctica & the sub-Antarctic Islands to raise New Zealanders' awareness of the impact of climate change. "In short, without knowledge the public cannot be expected to provide the commitment needed to ensure New Zealand governments protect our interests in Our Far South'... : ‘The last time… (120,000 years ago)… that CO2 levels in the atmosphere got to current levels, temperatures rose an average of 2C to 3C..raised sea levels by 15M to 20M…In the laboratory we know acidification affects any sea life with a shell, from shellfish to the myriad of tiny organisms at the bottom of the ocean food chain. But outside the lab we have no idea what the impact will be, because the world hasn’t seen such a rapid change in ocean acidity in 20 years.’ High - Risk Shift in vital chiller ocean. Part 2. Morgan, Gareth, Simmons, Geoff. NZ Herald Jan 3, 2012. www.nzherald.co.nz
POD : a smell output device.
I made a pod device in collaboration with Brian Harris with the intention of having a gadget to express olfactory material for art installations and also so that I could train myself in unconscious odours. I tested the pod device for both concentration and flow rate using a variety of smell compounds and materials; also tested the device to dispense androstenone which to some smells sweet like flowers, and to others appears as rancid sweaty.
Our pod is a device to deliver smell material on a stream of air, because one of the difficulties in olfactory art is finding ways to control dispersal. Its best delivered to the individual at nose level, so I was very interested to see scientific devices constructed for lab experiments, and was excited to discover that most of the scientists that I visited at Monell are engaged in hands-on creating of instruments and materials, eg olfactometers, sensors, steady electronically controlled air flows, etc… collecting and storing lots of lovely olfactory material---smell compounds sourced from both natural and synthetics extracted from various natural materials and sourced from corporate sponsors.
Dr. Paul Wise's olfactometer - very much more precise and detailed than ours, but seeing this device reminded me that both scientists and artists start with a concept or question and then find material ways to explore it.
Investigating suggestion and expectation in odour detection thresholds
Brian Harris & Raewyn Turner. This is our 'electronic' nose which converts smells into music notes. During my recent artist residency at Monell Chemical Senses Institute in Philadelphia, Sept-Oct 2011 I tested the device on various compounds used in the lab to investigate the 'liking' of unfamiliar flavours. The device is at the first stage of development. We intend to further develop this for art installation/performance. Thanks to Dr Marcia Pelchat and Monell, Chris Davison, Fulbright NZ and CoLab NZ
"Like odorant detection, odorant discrimination can improve with learning and practice (Rabin 1988). Increased familiarization was associated with a decrease in discrimination errors of initially unfamiliar odors (Jehl et al. 1995). Odor enantiomers that were initially indiscriminable became discriminable after one of the enantiomers was associated with an electric shock (Li et al. 2008)…Finally, it is noteworthy that the two mechanisms of olfaction considered in this review are very different in macrosmatic mammals. Most mammals likely do have egocentric spatial abilities in olfaction (Rajan et al. 2006), and sniff at a frequency that may prevent change-blindness (Welker 1964). These differences may allow a form of olfactory awareness in macrosmatic mammals that is unavailable to humans. Thus, whereas human olfactory perception is dominated by the perceptual axis of odorant pleasantness to an extent that renders it nearly unidimensional (Yeshurun and Sobel 2010), the mechanisms we have highlighted here may allow macrosmatic olfactory perception that is far richer. All this, however, does not limit the influence of odors on human perception and behavior, both of which may in fact be more susceptible to the influence of subliminal than perceived smells."
Human olfaction: a constant state of change-blindness. Lee Sela and Noam Sobel. Exp Brain Res. 2010 August; 205(1): 13–29. Published online 2010 July 7. doi: 10.1007/s00221-010-2348-6
Humans as rats
I had my first taste of rat food: it was SWEET! with a texture of pumice..... oh it reminded me of when I ate a whole pumice with salt, I was 6 years old and fascinated by the loaves and fishes story.
Dr Mike Tordoff pointed out four different types of rat:
Lab rat controlled
Pet rat pampered
Food rat gets eaten
Wild rat gets trapped, killed or poisoned
Feeder rat—for snakes in pet shops
And the Hero Rat trained to —trained to detect tuberculosis and landmines
This is a lovely pet rat--see Jeffrey Masson's blog on his Peaceable Kingdom experiment
I became a guinea pig in Dr Beverly Cowatt's dress rehearsal for a taste experiment kit, where the specificity of the design was tested : order, protocol and timing. The smell in taste disappears with a nose clip....
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Teaching: Olfaction: from Anatomy to Art.
Danielle Reed and Raewyn Turner
During the residency I taught a series of lectures on the memory and emotional experience of olfaction, and metaphorical mapping in collaboration with Dr Danielle Reed who taught the biology of olfaction, to students age 16 to 19 atSpringside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. The invitation to speak was extended by Scott Stein, Head of Science. Assisted by teachers Patricia Moss-Vreeland, Anne Keiser and Scott Stein, Danielle and I taught these classes together, with a number of students: Honors Biology (21), Human Physiology (20), ArtHistory (14) and Studio Art (9).
Teaching creative mapping of emotional words to fragrance to students in Studio Art
Art history was the first class so I introduced the Romantic artists --who coincided with the French Revolution. Ever since Dr Richard Newcomb, Plant and Food Research, NZ handed me two bottles of beta ionone at different concentrations I started thinking about smell and memory and unconscious perception. In lieu of beta ionone we were very fortunate to have violet essential oil (very rare whenever I've tried to find any) to pass around the class while I showed a video excerpt from a work in progress that combined violets, anosmia and memory.
Students with flavour taste kits.
Daniel wrote: "This experience provided the foundation to teach an expanded version of this class which draws on the biology of olfaction merged with its effects on memory and emotional experience. This approach provides science-focused students with a way into art and art-focused students with a motivation to learn the physiological and molecular principles of a sensory system."
People and places around Philadelphia
My Visit to IFF
Dr Leslie Stein and Carol Christenson facilitated a meeting with Denise Gillen at IFF International Fragrances and Flavours Institute in New York. Denise showed me around shared lunch and and introduced me to Ron Winnegrad. Ron Winnegrad, the director of the Perfume school at IFF, conducts an exceptional program of education and training as was demonstrated by one of the students.
Breadboard, Esther Klein Gallery, and NextFab
We have the fabulousTangleball and Mindkits Meetups in Auckland but sometimes I have a wishful thought for the facilities of places like Breadboard and NextFab Studio ( both in Philadelphia) in Auckland--actually in every town in NZ. They provide artists, creatives and anyone who wants to make things with superb EQUIPMENT and TOOLS, and expertise, along with education in a friendly atmosphere. The people who use the tools train others in using them.
is a hybrid program of the University City Science Center that explores intersections between contemporary art, design, science and technology. Expanding on 30+ years of Esther Klein Gallery programming, Breadboard's mission is to convene communities around creative applications of technology. Breadboard is the non-profit partner of
, a membership based prototyping center.