- Supersense, a strange cafe/photo-booth/recording studio/store in Vienna, sells “smell memory kits”
- The kits are the brainchild of Norwegian “smell expert” Sissel Tolaas who has created a library of 7,000 smells
- Each kit contains several “abstract” smells that you can smell when something important happens so that you can remember it later
Supersense, a shop located in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt neighbourhood, is a little hard to categorise.
It’s a gourmet cafe, a recording studio, a photo-booth, and a printing press all wrapped up into one, with a collection of weird and vintage items sprinkled throughout. It’s the kind of place you can get lost in for an afternoon, as I did recently on a trip to Austria.
But the shop’s most interesting item is its “smell memory kit.”
Ever sniffed the scent of burning charcoal and been instantly transported to that barbecue in the park when you were 10 and hit the winning single in the family softball game?
That’s the idea behind the smell memory kits.
The kits were developed by Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist and researcher who is well-known as a “smell expert.”
In her studio lab, she uses her background in chemical science to create and recreate smells. Tolaas has created a library of over 7,000 smells stored in glass jars that range from dog poop and burning garbage to flowers and coffee. In recent years she’s worked on creating “smellscapes” — what you might smell on a street in New York City or Cape Town, South Africa.
For a museum show in Germany last year about World War I, she recreated the smell of mustard gas to evoke the era. Attendees quickly got sick from the stench.
For the kits, Tolaas created “abstract” smells — essentially smells you’ve never been exposed to before and therefore have no connection to a memory. Each kit contains several abstract smell vials.
When something happens that you want to remember — a spontaneous night out where everything goes your way, or a gorgeous hike in the mountains — you break the vial and smell away.
From that point on, according to Supersense, that memory will be linked to that scent.
There’s science to back up Tolaas’s idea. Numerous studies have shown that smells trigger “more vivid emotional memories and are better at inducing that feeling of ‘being brought back in time’ than images,” according to Amanda White, a research technologist at Penn State College of Medicine.
Some researchers, according to White, have found that memories triggered by smell are linked to more brain activity than the word the smell is referring to. For example, the scent of a rose evokes a much stronger response than simply the word “rose.”
The same appears to hold true for negative memories. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2003 documented three case studies where smells triggered post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and memories.
Indeed, many psychiatrists have brought in Tolaas to help their patients process suppressed memories by creating smells that trigger remembering, Wired UK reported in 2010.
“We have a case at the moment in Berlin where a boy had seen someone killed by an ashtray,” Tolaas told Wired UK at the time. “I made 50 variations of ‘ashtray’ and on variation 20 this boy was able to remember who did it.”