Can you brainwash yourself using your sense of smell?

With Christmas advancing upon us in an implacable tsunami of chaos and enforced merriment, the challenge is how to carve out a little me-time. How to fake a place of calm in the eye of the storm – even for five minutes? The answer is as plain as the nose on your face, because the answer is … your nose.

At least, it is according to the entrepreneurs behind the latest innovations in smell technology, which feature an array of ways to make our brains take a hike. These gadgets, available in both analogue and digital varieties, all exploit one aspect of the human body’s natural engineering: that the nose is wired directly to the brain.

This means that, unlike sight and hearing, no pre-processing is done before data hits central command. Accordingly, certain smells are often imprinted with memories of when they were first encountered: cinema popcorn with a first kiss; disinfectant with a hated classroom; petrol with an adventurous road trip.

So, if smell can manipulate mood, why not control the use of fragrance for a little on-demand brainwashing? Frédéric Malle, the perfume house beloved by connoisseurs, offers stealth luxury with its Rubber Incense. Thanks to to a patented process which enables a scent to permeate the rubber material without corrupting it, the size of a computer mouse mat, this simple rectangle is impregnated with such wildly transporting aromas as ocean spray on wild roses (Rosa Rugosa), or a blasphemous blend of sacred sandalwood and hot breath on skin (Saint des Saints). It’s like a sci-fi version of those little cardboard trees that dangle from mini-cab car rear-view mirrors – and much nicer-smelling.

The Cyrano Digital Scent Speaker.
Even more futuristic is the Cyrano Digital Scent Speaker. This “mood-modification platform” puffs out atmospheric smells promising to transport you from the stresses of reality to the beach, the mountains, or the windmills of your mind. Programmed from your smartphone, the device releases an ever-varying “playlist” of odours to stimulate or relax you. To keep the brain engaged, individual “smelltracks” last for only 35 seconds before switching to the next.

While the Cyrano draws on such tried-and-true favourites as grass, peppermint and waffle cones, Norwegian olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas proposes that we reprogram our minds by avoiding familiar smells. Her Smell Memory Kit contains three ampoules – each one has a different “abstract smell” – along with a metal amulet to carry the chosen fragrance.

The idea is that when the user finds themselves having an experience they would like to remember, they sniff the ampoule in order to link the scent to the occasion. Thereafter, one whiff of the fragrance will automatically summon that experience and all its accompanying emotions.

Billed as “a revolutionary tool to capture the most important moments of your life”, the Smell Memory Kit’s selection of only three smells seems a little stingy. What if you deploy your entire arsenal on a triad of activities that, in retrospect, were not as good as you thought? Well, Tolaas has a further 23 abstract smells on standby at her SuperSense Labs in Vienna and Berlin. Even so, the pressure of committing a lifetime’s worth of memories to only 26 smells could end up being as stressful as the festive season you’re trying to sniff your way out of.

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