The Future of Smelling

Coming on the heels of a grant proposal, I am starting to think about my upcoming paper for the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in Boston in February. My talk will focus on the future of human smelling in a panel called ‘How We Came To Our Senses: Ecology, Evolution, and Future of Human Sensation’ The panel also features my colleagues Dr. Nathaniel Dominy (Dartmouth College), Dr. Amanda Melin (University of Calgary), and Dr. Paul Breslin (Monell Chemical Senses). This panel is a lovely step forward for my research which has focused on the evolution of our sense of smell and modern human variation in ability to detect specific odors (as limited by the small number of receptor-ligand knowns). I have written before about our early efforts to rebuild ancient noses which was picked up in several media outlets. I hope to get the final results of the Old Noses out in early 2017 along with the human variation data (stay tuned for some sneak-peak blog posts). For now, though, I want to focus on the next steps.

While visiting Durham University in the UK this fall, I have been thinking about modern cities and smellscapes–a contrast to where I would normally be, rural Alaska. Namely, I have been thinking about how a thread of anthropological research on environmental inequities is highly relevant to modern smellscapes. Specifically, sensory environments in cities are not equal and some people bear the burden of negative sensory input on a regular basis–garbage, noise, greater concentrations of pollution (e.g., bus routes), urban decay. The higher your socio-economic status, the more you can afford to elevate your place of living out of the sensory fray and surround yourself with positive sensory landscapes. The access to positive sensory landscapes is only going to become more polarized: urban population density projections show an increase from 54% to 66% by 2050 (UN)–in Europe 73% of the population lives in urban areas and 82% in the US. Africa and Asia are not as urbanized but projections show great increases in those areas in the few decades.

We are already very mismatched to the modern urban smellscape–our evolutionary sensory tuning took place in lush environments in Africa, rich with natural odors of plants and animals and other humans. We were in deep and regular contact with the environment–actively engaged (and anyone who has engage in any kind of smell training–perfume and wine mainly–knows how important that regular exposure is. In fact, some research has shown that hunter-gatherers can detect odors in more more dilute forms. Now, we find ourselves in built environments with manufactured odors (think Lush, Subway, and any number of modern chains with bespoke smells) and pollutants (which also diminish our capacity to smell well as seen here and here). This is true of urban areas but also true of rural areas with high activity in farming, mining, and manufacturing–all of which produce anthropogenic waste.

What does that mean for us? We are at greater risk of reduced capacity to smell (smell-ability) and increasingly find ourselves in environments with unnatural odors, high concentrations of harmful odors, and an inequitable distribution of positive sensory input. Smell loss and exposure to negative smellscapes (e.g., living near a piggery, manufacturing plant, or landfill–to name a few) increases risk for depression as well as reduces quality of life. No one has yet looked at impacts of artificial smells. An impaired sense of smell can result in eating issues as well as exposure to danger (not smelling rotten foods, toxins). Urban futures must focus on equitable in the sensory landscape, reduction in artificial sensory stimuli, and mitigation of negative sensory input across the urban setting. These efforts should be paramount to protect a sense that most people don’t think about but that performs vital day to day functions. I plan to launch several projects in the coming year that will address many of these unknowns and advance awareness of sensory inequities–this work will be embedded in my current work establishing the general architecture of human smelling in the distant evolutionary past and modern distribution of variation So, stay tuned!!

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Sensory perception and the trigeminal nerve

I recently made black beans and rice for a sunny deck party in Alaska at the cabin. The remainder from the deck party went to another party that included many SE Asians. I made it mild (5 jalapenos and chili powder), or so I thought, but both parties reported back that it was too spicy to eat more than a small portion. This led me to ponder the what leads to variation in sensory perception of data generated by the trigeminal nerve.

The trigeminal nerve (with regards to eating) is responsible for heat and cold detection (e.g., mint feels cool, chili feels hot) as well as other components of texture (e.g., crunchiness, density, sponginess) and is a perfect partner for chemosensing (taste and smell, collectively known as flavour). Between these cranial nerves (I-olfaction; V-trigeminal; VII and IX-taste), we get a full rich experience in the mouth.

Is there variation in how the nerve operates or something at the level of perception? With the chemosenses, we can look at the receptors and other accessory agents in the sensing process but not as much with the trigeminal nerve. So, is it learned–eat hotter foods to tolerate more heat? If the latter, we loop back to the notion of preference and how it is shaped. My mother is Irish so I grew up with well prepared but not spicy food. Two weeks most summers though, she would go home to Carrandine and my father would take over the kitchen and bring the heat to burritos and chili. Despite so little hot food influence in my formative years, I prefer hot foods and carry chili peppers in my bag. Only 3 times in my life have I had food that was at my tolerance limit and this includes many authentically prepared dishes in personal homes in Asia, Europe, and the US. I also love anything minty–the stronger the better. My aggressive palate is also very sensitive to textures–I have no objection to mushroom flavour (broth/sauce) but cannot eat a mushroom. If I were a neuroscientist, I would probably make this my field of inquiry–uncover what drives this preference impulse and how such variation within and among cultures.

A not-so-great movie  (Perfect Sense, 2011) explored a global phenomenon in which humans gradually lost of each of the five traditional senses. When the sense of smell was lost, chefs focused on contrasting the basic tastes. When taste was lost, they concentrated on novel textures and colors to try to engage the palate (and keep their kitchens open). This engagement with multiple senses is the focus on cross-modal sensory science which has a core idea derived from common sense: all the senses contribute to the experience of eating and drinking. Afterall, anyone can identify the value of a carefully presented plate compared to cafeteria ‘slop’ on a plate. But, these sensory scientists want to uncover what the various roles of non-chemosensing components have in overall food/drink perception and hedonic value (positive-pleasure; negative-displeasure). For example, does color have a great impact than shape or is it texture or the room ambiance or the plate itself (shape and color)? There is still so much to explore within the chemosenses, let alone how the senses integrate in the experience of food and drink. At the very least, we know what we like and some of us can carry chili peppers around to feed the heat!

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Consider Smell: Arctic Edition (Afterthoughts)

Since the exhibit came down last week, I thought I’d post a few memories of First Friday exhibit opening night at Ursa Major Distillery for Consider Smell: Arctic Edition and some followup on responses from visitors to the gallery over the month-long display! 20160304_172712We had a nice long line waiting for drinks before seeing the art on Friday as well as a good crowd throughout the night. 20160304_174332

 

 

 

 

 

People seemed to have fun engaging with the smells we made for my photos:

20160304_171514
We offered people a chance to respond to the exhibit and my favorite was:

senses embody everything we experience

from the feeling of fresh grass on bare feet

to warm socks on a chilly hardwood floor

your senses are everything

 

postcard

We asked people to circle a favorite word and this was a fun response:

My first gin and tonic was at an outdoors club in a cave-like setting in Thailand.

 

Warm and river were popular words–not surprising with breakup starting!

postcards-wordcloud

 

We even had a few creative reactions!

fisherman

kfc

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What does this smell like?

At the Consider Smell exhibit at Ursa Major Distillery during the month of March, visitors were asked to write down what they thought an unlabelled vial (birch) smelt like. The word cloud interestingly shows smoked/smoky/campfire as common responses–a lot of people were reminded of smoked meats and fishes either from fall hunt or spring spawning, a regional lifestyle specific response!

What do I smell like?

 

 

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3 April 2016 · 21:59

Consider Smell: Arctic Edition (Behind the Scenes Sneak Preview)

Join #considersmell this Friday in Fairbanks Alaska for an Arctic Edition of a travelling series of events that explore smelling, and other senses, through time and space. Come to the Ursa Major Distillery on Parks Highway from 5-8 for a multi-sensory experience!

prepartySome tools to get us started: the smoking gun! We use this to create foods from local trees (well, mostly!) Sadly, we can’t serve that yummy leek ash pasta on Friday!

a walk

the team

 

Our team takes a break! A walk in the woods to contemplate the light, the art, the science, and to smell things (we brought a pro along for help!).

 

a blue ballThe installation explores the synergy of art and science. Actively engage your senses and travel the interlocking sensual pathways that lead to perception. Explore molecular cocktails (we love the Arctic blueball mojito-see blue ball photo!), neurogastronomy, olfactory art, smell masks, a sound installation, 3D odor molecules, and photography enhanced with bespoke smells.The first thing installed is calm!

calm

read meThe exhibit is partially up! First goes the calm–that and the cocktail (thanks, Rob!) helped make the vinyl cuts even more fun to put up! A few photo nooks masked out and the rest up tomorrow!

 

Here’s a sneak peak of some things on offer–photographs with smells created, curated, and distilled!

earth-fall-k isovalericSmell fall in Fairbanks…

rural-super snow-j snow

 

Winter in Fairbanks…

urban-harringey-urban decay
Urbanity in Haringey…

urban-banksy-j urban decay

or the Banksy’s stone canvas at Turnpike Lane.

canal-urban-regents-rotting
Maybe sweet Chinese incense along Regent’s Canal after an afternoon on Primrose Hill.
water-whitstable-sea

Or the fresh air of Whitstable Seafront!

 

 

Smell Masks! They tell a story unique to an individual–a bespoke blend of smells crafted collaboratively. Come and smell the narrative of the Yukon Crossing and the Arctic Change.smell mask

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Consider Smell: Arctic Edition

Kara C. Hoover and Julia Feuer-Cotter

4 March 2016. Anthropology Colloquium in Bunnell 405 from 3-4:30
Consider Smell: Smelling Imagined Geographies through Time and Space

4 March 2016. First Friday at Ursa Major Distillery from 5-8pm
Join us for a multi-sensory experience that opens the nose to engage deeply across the senses via multisensory molecular cocktails with locally produced spirits, neurogastronomical foods, and interactive art that imagines other geographies. Art pieces range from molecular rendering of olfactory signaling, photography enhanced with bespoke smells, interactive sculptures, crowd sourced smell maps, and smell masks which explore another person’s reality through the nose. This series of works explores the synergy of art and science via the sense of smell. Kara C Hoover uses the nose as an environmental probe to explore smelling across time and space. Julia Feuer-Cotter explores how this environmental perception is enacted in Alaska’s recent past through cultural practices along the Dalton Highway.

14-17 March Arctic Perspectives at the UAF Gallery
Visit “Exploring the past with the sense of smell: circumpolar narratives and the creation of place: at the art show “Arctic Perspectives” at the  Fine Arts Complex/UAF Art Gallery. An opening reception for the exhibit will be held on 14 March 2016 and all are welcome to attend.  Art will be on display 12–17 March during regular Gallery hours, 9am – 5pm. The Gallery is located in the Art Department wing of the Fine Arts Complex, Room 313. On the left side of the Great Hall, the Gallery is the first door to the left immediately upon entering the wing.

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Consider Smell

Tomorrow, my colleagues and I will engage members of the public to consider smell from the molecular level to the streets of London! Following two events in Nottingham, tomorrow’s event will focus on a workshop format in the morning where Zoologist/Behavourial Geneticist Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester and I will give an interactive lecture/workshop on the molecular level of smell from odorants to perception with an evolutionary spin. We’ll talk about our recent paper showing how one gene linked to smell may have been selected in Eurasian populations and contemplate what the evolutionary setting for smell selection may have been. After a small tastes multisensory lunch, our group will take a smell walk led by Designer Kate McLean of Canterbury Christ Church University (sensorymaps.com) and Geographer Julia Feuer-Cotter of the University of Nottingham. For  more info see: www.considersmell.com

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