Keith Kelsen’s The Scent Narrative

Every Scent tells a story…a Scent story that is in your head.

Scent has an association that triggers a memory, often long forgotten. The Scent of a rose might take you back to Grandma’s garden, where as a child, you were taken by the hand to smell your first rose. Grandma holding your hand lovingly, warning you about the thorns and you deeply inhale…ahhh. In one moment, the scent of the rose today transports you back in time and is associated with the emotion of a new discovery and Grandma’s love.

Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel. Oliver Wendell Holmes

The creation of the Scent Narrative.

What if delightful memories of the past could become associated with the present? What if a story could be written by the scent itself? This is the creation of what is becoming known as the scent narrative.   A narrative is a storyline, literally, “the retelling of something that happened… The narrative is not the story itself but rather the telling of the story.”  Scent can become the storyteller, much the way that familiar frameworks of experience have been the “written narrative” or the “oral narrative. ”

The Proustian memory effect.

The scent narrative has its roots in France at the turn of the 20th Century.  Known as the “Proustian memory effect” it proposed that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense to help us recall distant memories. The theory is named after the French writer Marcel Proust, who in his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) describes a character vividly recalling long-forgotten memories from his childhood after smelling a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit.

The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking. Immediately at the moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertories through the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, for old memories and old connection. – Lewis Thomas

Scent a proven asset to memory.

Intuitively, people knew the truth of scent and memory, yet science took decades to prove it.  Scientists now believe the special impact of scent on our memory could be related to the proximity of the closeness of our olfactory bulb, which helps us process smells, and the amygdala and hippocampus brain regions which control emotion and memory.

The Proustian memory effect—that fragrances elicit more emotional and evocative memories than other memory cues—has been well established. Fragrances are known to potentiate a variety of psychological states effecting humans from moods to motivated behavior. Recent studies have proven scent can have a physiological impact on motion sickness and nausea, soothing the affected.  Smell, after all, is the most primal of the senses, more intimately associated with memory than any other form of experience. It is a smell that enables most of taste; Proust was moved not by the taste of a madeleine, but by its smell.

The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind. – Thalassa Cruso

Narratives became popular through technological innovations.

Narratives gained mass popularity through technological innovations like the printing press, radio, movies, and television.  Now, an Internet-based solution is popularizing the scent narrative for global distribution.  Deploying the scent experience in a healthful manner has been difficult, until 2016.  That was the year that the world’s first connected platform for scent was created by Inhalió.  Now scent can be remotely and healthfully controlled using the connected platform leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT). Inhalió technology has brought the scent narrative into the 21st Century.

The start of “Scent Media”.

The introduction of technologies for radio, television and the Internet, created whole new industries for media content.  Inhalió technology is catalyzing a new industry in “scent media”. By adding the scent dimension to virtually any experience, opportunities abound in Retail, Automotive, Entertainment and many other verticals.  Consumer research has shown that pleasant, product-congruent scents enhance product appeal, that products with greater emotional and cognitive involvement are perceived more positively, and that scent can increase recall for product information.  This is a brave new world for the entire fragrance industry.

In the fragrance industry, people make their careers as “noses”. Perfuming is the art of making scents, and is often an inherited talent. These individuals are artists, who as small children, learned to identify the molecules scenting their backyards.  As adults, they are an integral part of a $43 Billion-dollar industry. Their careers are spent in laboratories working with thousands of vials of rare and costly materials to create a Scent. They are the authors of the scent narrative, that until now, has only been limited to personal use, as in perfumes.

Creating a Scent of the Scent Narrative L’Eau d’Hiver

A leading example is the work of the world famous nose,  Jean-Claude Ellena.  His work inspired a series of articles and books on his scent narrative process.  In 2003 while working at Frederic Malle, he made a “fragrant sketch of winter”, L’Eau d’Hiver. Their website notes it as,

White heliotrope which besides soft floral, possesses a mild citrusy note, interlaces with notes of water, with balmy powder of iris and a drop of honey.”

According to author and NYT scent reporter, Chandler Burr,

“He wanted to create with it the scent of a cloud filled with sun.”

More than a name, an experience.

People expected L’Eau d’Hiver to be a cold water (the name means “winter water”). In fact, he was building the opposite, a hot water for a cold winter. He then took an old synthetic, Aubepine (an anisic aldehyde), which smells like a mix of the finger paint you used at age five and the cleaning wax applied to Formica floors.Aubepine costs almost nothing, around three euros per kilo.

Ellena bolted those two to methyl ionone (a synthetic that gives the idea of an iris), the milky-musky molecule MC-5, and a natural absolute of honey. It took him two years to fine-tune this engine, Malle giving him creative feedback, going back and forth; in the end, his formula, according to Ellena, totaled twenty ingredients, relatively minimalist for a perfume.

L’Eau d’Hiver smells of ultrafine ground white pepper and extremely fresh, cold crab taken that instant from the ocean. It is a brilliant, marvelous, utterly strange perfume, unique—it references nothing—and among the greatest ever created.[1]

Yet, an amazing scent is limited by the distribution process.  It is bottled and shipped to stores where it is sold to consumers.  The problem of the scent narrative is in this distribution.  These beautiful and emotive works of art have been adulterated by either a propellant, alcohol or heat, whose process emits carcinogens.

The Digital Age of the Scent Narrative has begun!

Now, however, with the advent of healthy and digitally distributed scent, new narratives can be created by these artists and other who will use scent in innovative and emotive ways.  As with all the technologies before it, having a connected platform for scent will impact the world in ways that are hard to imagine today.

In this electronic age, we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness. -Marshall McLuhan.

Commercial applications will be to create the effect of Proustian memories on product perception. In the very near future, there will be many examples demonstrating that it is the personal potency of Proustian memories evoked by a product’s fragrance, that drives product perception and experience. The Digital Age of the Scent Narrative has begun!


[1] The Perfect Scent-Chandler Burr 2007


Leave a Comment