Inhale you, Inhale me.
Odour-evoked Body Cartography
2017 | Conceptual Performance | Wearable Head-mounted Device | Tubes
Credit by Boyoung Lee
Could the sense of smell act as a communication tool that helps us recognise and understand each other better than any other sensory transmission channel?
'Inhale you, Inhale me' is an experimental demonstration using a sniffing device that explores a different way that people might remember their loved ones. A respiratory apparatus is connected to each participant’s body, enabling them to identify and remember one another by inhaling their partner’s body odours. Each piece of olfactory data will integrate and be embedded in the perceiver’s mind and memory, describing the olfactory cartography of the human body. Ultimately, smelling each other may not merely stimulate their vomeronasal (Jacobson) organ, but also their visual cortex; the deepest corners of our subconscious become an olfactory-associated image formed involuntarily from odour molecules.
The external image is measured through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin, but it is relatively superficial to perceive information about an entity through mere seeing and hearing. Since people interact with each other where visual and acoustic perception is overstrained, ocular-centric thinking makes people think they remember someone by their appearance based merely upon what they see. Therefore, our memory of someone is predominantly inclined to iconic or echoic memory that desensitises us to the importance of what we smell.
Figure 2 | Olfactory bulb location in our brain
To appreciate the subject more closely, more sensory information is required. The scent is an idiosyncratic information threshold by which it is advantageous to remember people and things because the olfactory processing area is near to the memory area in our brains. What we smell has a profound impact on what we do, what we remember, what we feel, and who we are more than arguably any other sense 1. Our brain uses smell as one of the primary factors in bonding experience to memory. Amongst the many types of memory, Chu (2000) said odours are especially powerful reminders of auto-biographical experience, an effect which has become known as the Proust phenomenon 2.
Every individual emanates atomic substances that make us distinctive from one another. We emit odour molecules and communicate with people using these micro-invisibilities involuntarily or deliberately. Communication, as it is commonly understood, means to impart or exchange information, not merely in linguistic form, through utterance or text, but also in other various forms. Language, as William Dwight Whitney (1875) said, ‘might be defined as all symbols that can be ignited by the mouth and heard by the ears’ 3. However, apart from the verbal medium, what else enables us to communicate? Amongst many other possible answers to this question, I believe that the sense of smell could be a relevant one.
Figure 3 | Shannon-Weaver model: Sender-receiver-based communication
Based upon this hypothesis, Project A aims to conceptually investigate how olfactory perception, corresponding memory, and communication ultimately blur the boundaries of human perception. Hopefully, this will not just challenge the ocular-centric world hypothesis, but also explore the potentiality of what we tend to neglect in the world of sensory experience. Despite the elusiveness and impalpability of the sense of smell, we should take scent into account as one of the integral sensory transmission channels that deeply influence human emotion, experience, and memory.
Memories, previous experiences, emotions, and feelings not only lead the recipient to voluntarily ruminate on the past but are called up in succession as the brain and millions of cells in our body receive outside stimuli, and also act to flesh out an image and help understand new information 4. According to Hara (2007), memories can be invoked by external stimuli that are transmitted through the sensory organs. Therefore, in this project, I intend to explore how odour-associated memory, not just the physical action of smelling itself, is also important to create the images we perceive. Clearly, memory not only leads us to evoke in our minds what we experienced in the past but also to understand new information. To recapitulate: a couple who think they know one another very well may find through experience with this device that they will recognise body odour information from their partners better than they had previously realised they did.
‘When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken
and scattered … the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls ... bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory’5. This immersive experience is stored as a body cartography in the deepest corners of the mind, and henceforth is retrieved as an odour-evoked autobiographical memory which, with one single breath, eventually communicates deeper and in more detail, allowing us to understand each other more than ever.
1 "Raquel Valdueza, ‘We Are 90% Visual Beings’, Infographic Design Agency – Ernesto Olivares, 2013 [online]. Available from:
https://ernestoolivares.com/2013/01/11/we-are-90-visuals-beings [accessed 14 May 2017]
2 "Simon Chu and John J. Downes, Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigation of Proustian Phenomena
(Department of Psychology, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK, 2000)
3 "William Dwight Whitney, The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science (London: King, 1875),
quoted in Noam Chomsky, What Kind Of Creatures Are We? (Seoul: Translated Korean, 2017)
4 "Hara, K. Designing Design, (Lars Muller Publications, 2007) excerpts- Architecture of Information
5 "Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way (New York: Vintage Publishing, 1970)"