15 settembre 2010

Sissel Tolaas: how does fear smell?

But the best surprise at Pitti Immagine Fragranze was another: Sissel Tolaas. Scientist engaged in smell issues for years,  Dr.Tolaas arrived in Florence with a fragrant installation absolutely out of the ordinary: a plain white wall in which odor molecules were inserted. To be precise, the smell of a young man panicking. To release the odor you scratched the wall and started perceiving an acrid smell, of hot, spicy sweat, pungent and very annoying (in the picture, my friends from Adjiumi Niche Perfumes).
After the first day it was no longer necessary to scratch the wall and smell: it was enough to stay near; so we decided to experiment if a scared person's smell was able to communicate anything to us. In fact, approaching the wall made me uncomfortable, and together with another person in our group I tried to stay away from the wall as much possible, while another one felt the need to pee -need vanishing away as soon as she backed from the wall- while another was "taken by the throat" with a choking sensation which prompted him to leave the wall in order to breathe well.
Shocked by this experience, we entered the booth and we met this fascinating scientist, Sissel Tolaas, willing to take her challenge to a world of perfume retailers: "What is the point in covering up one's body odour and denying it's there? People are so busy avoiding body odor that don't even know how they smell when they're scared, happy or sick. Ignoring certain smells just because our society classifies them as unpleasant has made us unable to correctly understand signals that the environment and other human beings launch at every moment. But how can you live without listening to one of the five senses? We're animals, and our b.o. is above all a code of communication. It's stupid refusing its existence! Before hiding it with perfumes we should learn how to use it properly".

The game was to understand how it works that you move from open refusal of the wall, to understanding its message and to finally -later in the day, after passing in front of it over and over again- to accept it and find normal it's there. In the animal world "familiar" means "reassuring" and, eventually, "pleasant".
To carry out her experiments Tolaas Head Spaced all aspects of reality, and so far has been able to catalog more than 6thousand odors. In the case of the frightened guy she asked psychiatrists to allow her to work with some of their patients, and when she gained enough confidence to do so, she Head Spaced the sweat emitted during panic attacks, and then recreated it in laboratory. For the wall, she chose Guy No.8, but there were plenty of bottles to smell in the booth.

Tolaas thinks that we haven't lost the ability to investigate reality with our nose, but that adults have too many rational superstructure to appreciate them for what they are, so she prefers working with children. She invites students in her laboratory (her research is funded by IFF) and leads them to discover body odors and the smell of the world around them. When the experience of an odor is made on an emotional context, in fact, the smell fixes in our memory and will never be erased, and this is why she hopes her research will help tomorrow's adults discover odors with which reading correctly the facts of life: not only their personal bodily reality, but also the environment around them.

I'll keep you updated, Tolaas research is absolutely necessary in a world like ours, giving abnormal attention to brain, and unease in giving credit to what transcends reason to talk directly to our inner self. The first time I approached the white wall I was kind of scared realizing my body had a reaction of its own, unmediated by rationality. But then I thought: if my body knows how to interpret reality so well, it means that in addition to the brain I own another powerful tool I can learn to use. One which is even more powerful, because it's "real time". And two is better than one, isn't it?

Pic: Tolaas in fornt of the wall, from Pitti immagine website (here)

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