In this special podcast, I’m very happy to welcome my old friend Jeremy Wagstaff. Jeremy and I go back many years and in fact he was the first journalist who interviewed me about my company in Singapore when we launched natural language chat and voice communication between humans and machines — a technology that’s groundbreaking to this very day.
Jeremy — like me — is often ahead of his time, perhaps that’s why we hit it off so well and began exploring and investigating all sorts of technological innovations in IT (and beyond) together.
One day this led us to a cool find at a local expo in Singapore where a “digital nose”1 was presented that Jeremy wrote about in great detail. In this podcast we’re going back to those days and cover some intriguing facts about the sense that gives us some of our most powerful memories: smell.
Memories and History
More than anything else, smells can easily transport us to different places and times, trigger memories from our earliest childhood and even of submerged incidents, often deeply buried in our subconscious. No wonder that smells have been used much like “spells” since the beginning of time and have a unique place throughout history.
Napoleon apparently asked Josephine to not bathe for three days, so he could enjoy her truly natural scent. Indeed, in times gone-by and well before any deodorants, the sweat under our armpits was once considered nothing less than the source of a most potent aphrodisiac:
Victorian women peeled apples and held them under their armpits till saturated and moist with fresh sweat whilst
young men tried to attract young ladies by first tucking some handkerchiefs under their armpits and then waving these cloth based scent holders at them, hoping the then engrained pheromones would excite female interest.
In those days, smells were also used in various important rituals, on the one hand to attract and submit good vibes from and to the universe, but also to repel and clear certain evil forces or bad energies which were perceived to be negatively influencing one’s life.
Some of these rituals remain with us to this very day and are included in almost all spiritual practices and most world religions, whether it’s in the form of holy smoke, incense sticks or simply the fragrance of flowers covering temple grounds or decorating a deities’ idol.
Impact and Influences
Smells not only form or trigger memories, they can also be used to influence one’s moods and potentially even increase or decrease aggression and the likes. One of the ways these aromatic wizards work is by impacting our dopamine and serotonin levels.
However not all of the substances used in aromas, flavors, fragrances, etc. are beneficial to us. In fact there are thousands of harmful chemicals in products ranging all the way from deodorants to vapes which are perfectly legal ingredients, yet often have a detrimental effect or even allergic reaction on many unsuspecting sufferers.
One of my friends once had a lymph node removed from under her arm pit and the cause later was blamed on an aluminum derivative containing deodorant.
Unless you’re doing your own research and taking control of your own health though, you’re unlikely to be pro-actively notified of the dangers contained in apparently nicely smelling consumer products.
A Powerful Industry
The fragrances industry is a multi-billion dollar market estimated to reach USD 30.61 billion in 2023, controlled by only a few large names. The “big four” in the F&F sector are led by publicly less known corporations Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, and Symrise, resembling sort of an oligopoly.
More recently major tobacco conglomerates are also entering the race for dominating yet another part of the aroma business world in the form of vapes. Vaping isn’t so cool as some people tend to believe. One of my friends who had already smoked normal cigarettes in the past and had successfully stopped for many years got addicted to vaping and says she finds it much harder to quit than cigarettes at the time.
Many studies including those from Dr. Mercola’s “The Vape Deception” report conclude that the artificial aromas from vaping and e-cigarettes are equivalent to poisoning ourselves as they impact our macrophages and increase risks for Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”).
Scents of Eternity?
From voluntary smoking to forced inhaling of perfumes in shopping malls and hotels all the way to involuntary exposure of smart dust, the future of smell is yet to be explored. Gartner listed smart dust technology for the first time in its Hype Cycle in 2016 which given its enormous potential in military and commercial uses is not a surprise.
However, the question whether we’re ready for it given the ubiquitous nature of invisible digital sensors and the privacy concerns surrounding them, should rightfully be asked. The future of digital sensing technologies such as smart dust based microelectromechanical systems (“MEMS”) could be as small as a grain of salt and given the rapid advancements in nanotechnology (and self-assembling circuits) even tinier.
Given the hopes many put in such technological advancements (some of which seem to be bordering on sheer magic), I do admit that I’m a little bit concerned we could end up as the old Egyptians did. Assuming the next generation would find ways and means to revive their top most leaders, they made sure their respective bodily containers would never decay and despite all their efforts, no known smelling salt or technology has been found to do the trick yet.
That said, scientists recently uncovered the chemical components of a perfume used in such ancient Egyptian death rituals that texts referred to as the “scent of eternity”. Who knows what this could mean for our fragrant future: death in life or life in death?
Of course I don’t know, but I shall watch these developments with great excitement and interest.
Meanwhile I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Jeremy and myself. Please let us know if there are subjects you’re particularly interested in, perhaps we can cover them together!