At the stroke of midnight, eleven years ago, World Sensorium, my social olfactory sculpture, was dropped over the largest crowd in Times Square New Year's Eve history. This year the physical crowd in Times Square ushering in the New Year was smaller by a million, but the virtual crowd was vastly larger. The crowd beyond this year's event was also inhabiting Twitter, Facebook, and countless other web and social media sites. A lot has changed in 11 years.
Sensorium means the mind-brain, the cerebral cortex and nervous system as a collective organ of sensation; feeling, receiving, perceiving, sensing, and interpreting- experience at the very core of our humanity. World Sensorium is a single complex scent comprised of culturally associative aromatic phytogenic materials of world flora experienced in the olfactory domain, formulated on population percentages. Research to create World Sensorium included a survey of 225 nations, conducted over several years on a country-by-country basis. The data from the survey established the constituent component scents of the formula of the World Sensorium olfactory sculpture. This process insured that every natural scent included in the formulization is invested with historical and cultural meaning retained through olfactory memory by a majority of people of each country. Many of the scents have strong foundations in mythology, religion and anthropologic traditions with 95 percent of them coming form flora having known medicinal or healing properties.
Olfactory imprints are the scents or natural chemical cues that are associated with cultural experiences. These scents are memory triggers. The imprint scents are distinctive aromas critical to each country's cultural memory. The sources of the aromas are used as medicine and food, for building shelter, and for veneration in religious and cultural practices. The botanical material from each plant is unique in its chemistry, influenced by its geography, prevailing weather conditions and the time of year it is harvested.
In March of 2007, I presented the results to my study at the New York Academy of Sciences Conference, "Linking Affect to Action: Critical Contributions of the Obitofrontal Cortex." In short, the assessment was that highly associative natural scents work as olfactory imprints and memory triggers for large numbers of people of different cultures in every region of the world, which suggests that early ambient chemosensory stimulation of environmental flora is encoded, is stored in the long-term memory, and influences the orbitofrontal cortex.
The scents of flora that have evolved to iconic status are like cuttings from old cultural branches in humanity's partnership with nature, and each has symbolic meaning. When their aromatic cues trigger memory, people can experience potent emotions and feelings. These experiences can often restore positive feelings and perceptions of well-being. The study documented how group identity can be linked to collective responses to natural odors that are related to geographic locations and cultural practices.
Early stimulation of the olfactory brain by aromatic volatile oils of regional flora may have a positive effect on well being and on the cognitive processing and storage of olfactory information. As there's a wide-range of natural chemical stimuli encountered in most environments, it is likely that cultural practices presenting repetitive processing contribute to the creation of olfactory signs that functions as memory triggers.
Like Marcel Proust's concept of "involuntary memory" where profound reminiscences are evoked, different cultures perceive "memory trigger" scents differently, and their meanings can be dissimilar because of cultural practices and associations. The data indicates that the use of olfactory therapy with oils of plants that have symbolic cultural meaning may have applications in the treatment of problems associated with aging, addiction, and psychiatric disorders.
I have had many occasions to witness how this can work. One unexpected time took place while at work on World Sensorium in the studio, and I found my phone wasn't functioning. After days of waiting for and missing the repair technician, he finally arrived while I was there, and was very annoyed that I was annoyed. The tension between us was great. From the top of his ladder he looked around and finally asked, "What do you do here?" I told him I was working on a world scent and asked him where he was from. He said, "Grenada." I went through the bottles and held up one. He brought his nose close. "That's the smell of my country! That's nutmeg!" he swooned as he took the bottle and threw himself on the couch smelling. His mood changed dramatically as he told me about how the trees were everywhere on the island and that everyone had a nutmeg tree. He expressed real happiness at the thought of how fragrant the tree's yellow flowers are and described how the smell of the nut changed as it ripened and dried. He went on talk about how when the nut is young and fleshy they make jellies and latter they use it in a much loved rum punch, in many other foods- and then, how it had been given to him as medicine for his stomach. I made a small bottle for him the carry with him in his pocket. He was thrilled.
Essentials oils have been used therapeutically for centuries, but the results to this worldwide study indicate that there may be benefits of olfactory therapy using oils of plants that have symbolic cultural meaning in the treatment of problems associated with aging, addiction, and psychiatric disorders. Clinical studies have shown many essential oils to be associated with mood alteration, however these findings which enabled the creation of World Sensorium, point to the importance of using natural plant smells to which people have past experiences.
World Sensorium evolved out of a three-decades-long artistic exploration of the interface between humankind and nature and the loss of preservation of cultural practices, natural orders and ecosystems. Through the course of this exploration, the idea of tapping systems formed in our origins-or accessing them in spite of historical and temporal distances-has been central.
Like the virtual connectivity to New Year's celebrations, far more people have connected with the philosophical aesthetic fundamental to this artwork by the Internet, rather than being one of the thousands that have experienced it physically in public art events. The way World Sensorium affects the internal territory of human memory and consciousness allows people to be touched in a unique way; like any artwork, it's real value is in the vitality, emotion and power stimulated in the mind.
The World Sensorium Web site (www.worldsensorium.com) contains the official nation statements. Don't miss Palau's cultural statement about their traditions and practices involving Turmeric (Curcuma longa).