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The Science of Smell

Inside the nose of Sissel Tolaas, the world’s leading scent curator.

By Tim NoakesPublished 7 years ago 15 min read
Sissel Tolaas in her Berlin lab

Straddling the disciplines of art and science, Sissel Tolaas has travelled the globe collecting over 7,000 different smells, which she stores in her Berlin research laboratory. Along the way she has made cheese from the bacteria in David Beckham’s football boots, simulated the sweaty smell of fear, and recreated the scent of space as a training aid for NASA astronauts. Having avoided deodorant her entire life, Tolaas is on a quest to educate “the smell-blinded” by separating odours from visual stimulus. She has made scents that help people learn biology and has mapped out molecular smellscapes from Amman to Calcutta. When the wind blows, her nose becomes filled with a “symphony of music”, and she dreams of everyone being able to experience the same sensation. Tolaas believes that once we retrain our noses, we will be able to overcome society’s pre-conceptions of what smells good and bad. And if that happens, we’ll all be able to see everything from a new perspective… without even having to open our eyes.

Tim Noakes: Why did you decide to devote your life to smells?

Sissel Tolaas: I got dead tired of having to rely on looking at things and primarily using my eyes to understand the complicated world we live in. What about the other amazing senses we have? Why are they not also used in the same way as we use the eyes? The air which surrounds us contains elements that are invisible but can control how we understand the world. This invisible reality became a topic of concern for me and so I went on an amazing journey to find out more. That ended up being seven years of field work. I didn’t know where I was heading, there was no limit.

How did you begin to document all these smells?

I literally burned all my visual material from the past. I then started to build up a smell archive, where smells became a reference of time, people and places. I eventually archived 7,000 smells from reality. That became the starting point of really focusing and getting on the other side of the smells; I used myself as a guinea pig to see life, say, from the point of view of being a dog.

What was the first smell that changed your perception of the world?

Milk. I had a backpack full of prejudices, and one by one I tried to teach myself to accept them. My relation to the smell of milk was pretty traumatic, but after a couple of years of training I didn’t have a problem anymore. The issue of prejudices is a big one. We are all learning smells throughout life in the context of a narrative. If that initial encounter happened to be positive or negative then your relation to that smell will remain positive or negative until you die. And there’s nowhere we can re-learn our take on a smell.

So all smells are fixed from childhood experiences?

Childhood is so important because that’s the first time you smell something. Being alive is a repetition, so the reference is always the first time. When I was retraining myself, I never had a smell of milk next to a picture of milk because the image does the job for you. I reproduce the smell of milk and different variations of milk, and train myself to be aware of it in a different way over a long period of time. My work is all about that. I don’t give a code, I don’t tell sides, it’s all up to you and that’s fantastic.

Is it possible to relearn how to taste and smell?

Yes, absolutely. I put a lot of effort into education and work with children very early in life to influence and integrate all the senses, or what I call “the software” you have in the body. We have amazing hardware called the body, and five amazing sub-categories of sensual software. It’s a shame that we don’t put a bit more education and effort to use that capacity, it’s unbelievable.

So you’re part psychiatrist, part hypnotherapist and part scientist?

And part crazy! [Laughs]

[Laughs] But do you hypnotise people into accepting smells that have horrible memories associated with them?

No, why should I? I’m not a doctor, I’m trying to show reality we live in that we cannot see. A lot of smells are there for a purpose, and if they wouldn’t be there, we wouldn’t know what’s going on. So it’s more about transparency and the right to know what’s going on. We are born with an idea of smell that’s unique as your fingerprint. Tolerance doesn’t start at how you look and what you believe, it starts at how you smell. How do you train your child to accept one or the other? I think the most appropriate way is to use what you have for free. You have a body and senses – if you train them how to use those tools in an efficient way so much can be accomplished.

Do you smell train your nose every morning?

Yeah, why not? I train my muscles, my nose, I read my newspaper, I drink my coffee… they are my rituals. It’s like if you don’t train your muscles they decrease their function, the same as the senses. If you don’t train your nose, it’ll stop functioning, and most people don’t train their nose and so noses are quite de-functioned.

Does your training involved going into your archive and opening up random boxes?

Yes, that, and I also smell concrete stuff. I do it as part of how I live. If I travel, I have a smell case with me, so I can do it even when I travel. It’s my sniff box.

What smells wouldn’t you leave home without?

It depends where I’m going, but mostly it’s abstract smells to keep my nose fit. On work trips there’s so much to do, I don’t want to overwhelm my nose. It’s a small ritual I do with abstract ingredients just to help it.

What do you do to relax your senses?

Sleep. I’m trained enough to turn off that function when I’m deeply in sleep. I also have a smell-neutral sleeping room which helps.

Athletes insure their limbs, singers ensure their throats… have you insured your nose?

No, I don’t have that much money! Maybe I should? That’s something to consider, maybe I’ll be the first woman in the world? I guess should do that.

Do the smells in the archive change over time?

The 7,000 boxes are never opened again. I have a database where every box has its contents at the time in terms of data, but I never open the boxes again. I don’t even know what’s inside or if there’s anything left. But that’s not important. I have different devices to reproduce the smell, as well as chemical compounds to make the smell. I can reproduce what I catch endlessly, and that’s a snapshot of a smell – just like you snapshot on the iPhone, I make a snapshot of invisible reality and the next moment that reality is completely different.

Collecting all the world’s smells is an impossible task. Does that weigh heavy on your shoulders?

No, I think that’s amazing. There’s a whole world to smell and a whole world to educate how to smell, so how can you stop? The process is as important as the product, and that what is making it so amazing. It’s all to do with life and what it means to be alive. That’s quite a profession to have!

Do fragrance companies ask you to simulate, say, the smell of happiness or love?

Of course, you cannot believe what kind of requests I have had. But these things are too abstract. What’s the smell of happiness? What’s the smell of love? I’m sorry, it’s not possible. You can make a smell and call it ‘happiness’, that’s something else, but the way I work is that I collect realities and reproduce them. I don’t sit around and make smells and call them things.

Although you did do the project about fear. How did you distill the essence of that feeling?

I focused on the sweat caused by fear. It’s about psychology and the state of your mind, every minor level of that smells differently if you analyse it. It’s like when you cry from happiness, the acidity in the tears is different than if you cry from being afraid – it’s the same with sweat.

Have you analysed a lot of your own tears?

No, but I made cheese out of Olafur Eliasson’s tears

And did he eat it?

No he didn’t eat it, but the cheese smelled like his tears [laughs]. It was a project I did with the Harvard Medical School around bacteria and life. We got professional and famous donors involved, and the pitch was, ‘If in the future you would have to contribute to food production, which part of the body would you choose the bacteria from, and what type of cheese would you like to be?’ We grew that bacteria and used it to ferment food, and in this case, cheese. We made celebrity cheeses for the Trinity University in Dublin – the science lab there – and then we did another project at Harvard and Stanford in the US with the cheese.

Did you taste any of the cheese?

Yes, I made my own cheese and I ate it, no problem. It’s all about the power of language – if I didn’t tell you that this cheese was infact Mark Zuckerberg’s feet cheese, you wouldn’t even know it. So what do you know about what you eat? How do you transplant facts from science into the reality you live in? Bridging the gap between the science world and corporate world is is very much what my work is about. I’m so sick of clichés. What justifies someone saying this smells good and acceptable versus what someone else thinks?

Regardless of material wealth and looks, we all boil down to the same compounds.

Exactly. Tolerance is a big topic in my work. Compare the Middle East to America, which is sanitised ‘for your protection’. In the Middle East you really smell what people eat and what they did two hours before. I think that’s fine – it’s much more interesting than everything smelling like Colgate. We get so hung up on, ‘How many showers did we take?’ rather than enjoying life. These are issues to do with quality of life and how you understand what quality of life is —it’s a conditional quality of life. We have a nose for the purpose of finding food and a partner, end of story. If you live on the street and have no other choices, you go to bed with whoever you come across and you eat whatever you come across. We tend to forget this.

Your 18-year-old daughter has been your guinea pig for testing and capturing smells since she was born. Does she wear fragrances and deodorant?

No, not at all. But if she’s going out to a party and needs a certain smell, she sometimes comes up to me and says, ‘Mummy I want a smell that tells people I don’t want them to come close, or I want them to come close’. So I make her self-defence and protective kind of smells, but also smells that attract.

So when a prospective boyfriend wants to take her out, do you secretly put on her the “I have a formidable mother, run away as fast as you can” smell?

Yes I have. It didn’t work. [laughs]

As you get older, are you fonder of smells that you weren’t previously?

Oh yes, you cannot believe it! People think I’m crazy because I can go into situation where other people throw up, but for me that’s just when things start to get interesting. That’s because my knowledge of chemistry helped me to see more rationally rather than getting involved irrationally.

There must’ve been a lot of smells that made you want to faint though?

Of course, I’ve been doing this for 20 years – there’s not always a dozen roses. But this is also how you train, how you challenge yourself in life. Sometime I go into extreme situations because I just enjoy what I do. The more extreme, the more I enjoy it.

Has a smell ever made you lose control?

No, but I have had nightmares.

What smells have given you nightmares?

I worked on a big project for the World War I museum in Germany. I had to compose a smell from something I didn’t know about, because there were no references in the reality in which I live now, so I had to read a lot of heavy material and then create a lot of hardcore smells. That was pretty disturbing and gave association to things I didn’t necessarily want to have when I went to bed.


Yes, exactly, but extreme death. However the fact that the subconsciousness was working throughout the night made me wake up in the morning with a clear idea in my head of what kind of direction the smells would take. So it was tough process to go through, but at the end of the day it brought results.

How will smells play an increasing role in war?

Israel already use them. They got a tank and sprayed the smell of skunk into Palestine to scare people away, of course, because skunk is a very pungent smell. Who wants it in that kind of context?

Are there ways humans can learn to repel disturbing smells like that?

I think there are other things you can do and there’s a lot of things you shouldn’t do. If you compare a pungent smell—exposing or placing a pungent or disgusting smell out somewhere, I think it’s less effective than what terrorists already do, so why would they do it? The point is not to scare, the point is to destroy, and you cannot be destroyed by just a smell. Also, every human reacts differently to smells. I think Stanford or Berkeley tried to make the ultimate smell of stench and tested it on I don't know how many different cultures. About two of the people that tested it thought it was disgusting, the rest had completely different relation to it. It’s very difficult to make a generalised smell in that way.

Do you think there’s a way of incorporating smell learning into the school system, to help educate children about history on a sensory level?

Yes. Smells provide information we otherwise wouldn’t know, and everything on planet Earth has a molecule of a time. I think there is a big field out there that needs to be explored beyond just making smells. It’s a whole other world that I think is interesting beyond making a smell. To me, that’s secondary.

Do you think technology will develop to the point where immersive media will come with odour prompts as well as audio-visual cues… smell-o-vision for the VR age?

The problem you have is there will always be a certain amount of variation. A smell had to come from something, so if you connect smell to technology, how many cartridges and how many molecules are you going to have? If you’re going to do it properly you need a database of millions of molecules that precisely emit the smell that you are staying in front of. You can attempt it, but it’s always going to be a kind of illustration because a smell cannot actually do its job. On a basic level if we invented a smell-o-phone, and the person you rang is eating a hamburger with garlic and onion, you’d be like. ‘Hello, urgh, sorry, I’ll call you back after dinner’. Do we need that?

Would it have been possible to create an undetected smell that was dropped in American polling booths to trick the public to vote for a specific person? For example by awakening a sensual empathy for either Trump’s masculinity or Clinton’s femininity?

Yes, yes, yes, to get them to think twice and to make them maybe turn around their own vote? Is that what you mean, to influence them?


Of course! But again this is deep stuff, so you have to be very careful. It can be very counterproductive, it can cause aggression… it can be very dangerous. But there are so many other factors – the colour of the booth in combination with a certain smell would influence your vote. What I like to do is remove everything else and say, ‘Listen, this is all about the smell, nothing else’ – there’s no language, there’s no image, there’s no sound, it’s just you and the smell and nothing else, and then let’s see what happens.

Can you fall in love with someone purely by the way they smell?

I fall in love with a lot of people because of what they smell like. There are a lot of people who I come across in life who are incredibly interesting-smelling wise. I investigate and try and find out more about these people more than if I just look at them first. If I start to dig into all the different levels of smell that a person emit, I mean, wow, that’s a whole lifetime in one breath.



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