Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Battle of the Humbugs: Kate McLean vs Sissel Tolaas

It’s on! Sissel Tolaas has a challenger.

The Daily Mail’s Eddie Wrenn provides a succinct account of the smellscape mappings of a British artist named Kate McLean. Ms. McLean has created impressionistic smell maps of cities including Glasgow, Scotland and Newport, Rhode Island. We have no problem with that. In fact, FirstNerve has long been a fan of olfactory art and in particular of inventive ways of visualizing the smellscape. So when we saw the headline of Mr. Wrenn’s piece we were there in a clickbeat:
Who nose the way? Artist creates ‘smell maps’ of cities across the world in tribute to our most under-appreciated sense
Ms. McLean tours selected cities, mingles with the locals, and creates site-specific smell maps. If her methodology sounds familiar, a keen sense of graphic design gives her printed results a unique and elegant look. Her goals sound good, too:
Kate says her aim is to sensitize tourists and visitors to a new place, and use a ‘largely-ignored sense in their perception of that place’.
It’s when Ms. McLean starts explaining the sensory basis of her work that things get shaky.
She said: ‘Smell has a “do not enter brain processing” connection with our emotions, making smell the supreme retainer of memory over our other senses.
Smell is not entirely or even mostly an “emotional sense.” Studies claiming that smell memory is more emotional than visual memory show, at best, a marginal effect. Not a “supreme retainer” by a long shot.
“We have 100 per cent smell recall after one year but only 30 per cent sight memory after three months.”
For Pete’s sake. Ms. McLean is entitled to artistic freedom to create smell maps any way she pleases, but that doesn’t give her a license to make up her own scientific facts. Her bit about smell having 100 percent recall appears to be an exaggeration of a claim—now discredited—made by Trygg Engen in the 1970s. As someone wrote not too long ago, “The purity and infallibility of smell memory—an insight central to Proust’s literary conceit—doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny.”
‘The first time we smell a new scent we automatically associate it with whether we like it or not (positive or negative) and we associate it with the location where we smell it.’
Ask yourself: where did you first smell banana? Coffee? Cigar smoke? Buttered popcorn? Specifics only, no fuzzy inferences of the “It must have been in the kitchen when I was little” variety, please. Go ahead, take your time.
‘Therefore I propose that smell can be used in tourism marketing to foster lasting memories of a place.’
This is the icing on the crazy cake. If, as Ms. McLean argues, we immediately and permanently associate every new smell with a specific place, then the only way a smell can be used in tourism marketing is if it is totally novel. After all, reminding a person of the seashore smells of Newport would be effective only if he had never before smelled the seashore—any seashore.

McLean may have discovered a great way to promote package tours for olfactory virgins. Even then, there’s a danger that their everlasting memory of seashore smell will be reading a scratch-and-sniff brochure in the departure lounge at Heathrow.

But look at the bright side: all this pseudo-scientific claptrap will give Kate McLean an edge against Sissel Tolaas in the olfactory arts humbug championship. Imagine the two of them in a winner-take-all smell-off. Now there’s an indelible image.

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