‘Smell is very important for social communication’: how technology is ruining our senses

“WWait a minute, wait a minute. You haven’t heard anything yet.” So it went with the first line of audible dialogue in a 1927 feature film The Jazz Singer. It was one of the first times that mass media had conveyed the sights and sounds of a scene together, and the audience was captivated.

There have been improvements since then: black and white has become color, frame rates and resolutions have increased, and sound quality has improved, but the media we consume still focuses overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, on our eyes and ears.

With the average person spending nearly seven hours a day on screens, and much of that time indoors, our overreliance on images and sound has only increased. But since humans are animals with five (or undoubtedly many more) senses, we neglect our other faculties, and what does it do to us?

Many psychologists categorize our major senses as rational or emotional, and there is evidence to support this. “Smell (and taste) are directly connected to the emotional processing areas of the brain,” says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, “while the rational senses such as hearing and vision are processed in the cortex.” Spence says that more than half of the neocortex – itself more than half the volume of the brain – is used to process what we see.

There’s no denying that we are highly visual creatures and that’s part of the reason why our media is primarily audiovisual. “I think this is mainly due to the fact that much of the information we consider important today can be conveyed through visual or auditory means,” says Meike Scheller, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Durham. “But what we think is important doesn’t necessarily mean these are the things we need.”

If you ask people what sense they couldn’t live without, most will say sight, but there is evidence to suggest that what we would really miss is our sense of smell. “There is a much higher rate of suicide and suicidal ideation among people with anosmia because it is a feeling so closely tied to our emotions,” says Scheller.

Does neglecting some senses in favor of others affect our emotional lives? To the extent that our emotional health is connected to our social health, the answer is almost certainly yes. “Smell is a very important signal for social communication and this is something that is not implemented in any technology we use today,” says Scheller.

For example, it has been shown that we tend to unconsciously sniff our palms after shaking someone’s hand. “That gives you hints about all kinds of things, from their health to their age and even their personality,” says Spence. “A fair share of that is lost if we only communicate digitally.”

Touch is just as important to our emotional lives, and in ways that the finger-centric haptics of our digital devices cannot satisfy. C-tactile afferents, a type of nerve receptor abundant on the hairy skin of our arms (but not on the pads of our fingers), have been shown to induce positive emotions when stimulated. “These receptors like slow, warm, tactile stroking,” says Spence.

The cold, stark touchscreen of a smartphone simply cannot replace the soft, warm, imperceptibly smelly skin of another human being. For adults this may mean a less satisfying social life, but for a generation of children increasingly socialized through technology the consequences can be serious.

Scheller says that children learn to interpret their senses in relation to each other. We could learn to associate a subtle scent with the sound of someone shouting or the sight of someone laughing, and use these cues to navigate social situations in the future. “Children who grow up with less input are actually less trained at categorizing what certain things smell like, or what a certain touch might mean,” says Scheller. “If we suddenly take away something that has evolved over millions of years, it will not only be the removal of one sense, but it will also affect the functioning of all the other senses.”

Marianna Obrist, professor of multisensory interfaces at University College London, says: “The way we experience everyday life involves all our senses. Everything is multisensory.”

For example, it is easy to think that the experience of eating is primarily a matter of taste, but the shape and color, the smell and sizzle, the temperature, the texture and the weight of our food appeal to us sight, our sense of smell, our hearing and our touch. “All those senses are at play before you even eat,” says Obrist. And then there is the mouthfeel: the physical sensations of spiciness or sourness and of course the taste.

Removing just one of those senses can impact the entire experience. For example, if people eat ice cream in the dark, they are less likely to enjoy it, or even know for sure what it tastes like. “Any time we have multisensory stimulation, we get a much better and richer representation of the environment around us,” says Scheller.

So what are we doing to make our technology more multisensory? Obrist was previously head SenseX, an EU-funded project that aims to help designers devise new ways to integrate touch, smell and taste into their products. The team’s efforts include spraying scents under a subject’s nose to highlight key moments in Christopher Nolan’s film. Interstellarby destroying them with ultrasonic waves to simulate touch and use high intensity acoustics to make food float on the tongue without the need for wires or tubes.

It’s hard to imagine watching anytime soon Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore delivers Apocalypse now‘s most famous phrase as your laptop sprays eau de napalm down your nose in the morning, but smell and taste interfaces may be on the horizon. Researchers are already using AI to find primary scents from which any scent can be concocted, and Obrist is the Chief Scientific Officer of OWidgets, a company that produces digitally controlled scent delivery systems with applications in research, healthcare, and immersive reality experiences.

Almost all the input we receive from electronic devices is visual or auditory – and therefore processed by the cortex, or rational part of our brain. Photo: Alex Segre/Alamy

There are also companies like Dexta Robotics in China that are bringing tactility to virtual reality with a glove they call the Dexmo.

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“Dexmo can provide tactile feedback and force feedback at the same time,” says Aler Gu, CEO of Dexta, “which means that when you swipe your fingers through a virtual brick, you can feel the texture of the surface. When you pick up the stone and move it from one point to another, you feel its physical form.”

Media that taps into all the senses would certainly enrich our daily interactions with technology, but it’s not hard to imagine that more insidious applications will emerge. In 1957, an American market researcher named James Vicary claimed that he had merged some frames with the texts “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie. He reported an increase of 57.5% and 18.1% in sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola respectively, and the concept of subliminal advertising was born.

Vicary was later exposed as a fraudster and the effectiveness of subliminal advertising has proven to be a great success matter of debate since then, but would technology that can digitally transmit smells and tastes be a gift to unscrupulous advertisers? “Our bodies have a very strong emotional response to (these senses). They can be extremely powerful,” says Scheller. “It has great potential to influence our decisions because we are very emotional decision makers.”

Research has shown that exposure to certain tastes and smells can influence our judgment of the appearance and personality of others, and even change our behavior. Tasting bitter foods, for example can make us hostileand a Patent application from 2005 suggests that the smell of pink grapefruit causes a man to perceive a woman as younger than her actual age.

Obrist’s team discovered that A sour taste can make us more willing to engage in risky behavior. “Maybe you’re e-banking or shopping online, and you’re drinking your sour lemon drink, and that can indirectly influence your decisions,” she says, and it’s not hard to imagine how an e-commerce or gambling app could exploit devices that can transmit tastes and smells.

To some extent, this kind of thing is already happening. Companies are known for pumping pleasant scents into their stores, and US chain Cinnabon deliberately places ovens near store entrancessometimes baking trays with only sugar and cinnamon, to entice passing shoppers.

And what if we go even further? Of the nearly 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, the vast majority had experienced him through only two senses. What if the media used our devices to give off a subtle aroma of sour milk while broadcasting a speech from one political candidate and freshly baked cookies for another?

After all, one study from 1940 showed that people were significantly more or less likely to identify with political slogans such as “Down with war and fascism!”, “Workers of the world unite!” and “America for Americans!” depending on whether they were exposed to a putrid odor or given a free lunch.

If the news allowed us and our leaders to taste the air pollution in Delhi, feel the wildfires in California, or smell the smoke and sewage in Gaza, the appeal to our more emotional senses would move us into action come, or bury our heads deeper in trouble? sand? It’s hard to imagine a willing audience for such a sensory assault, but our senses have evolved to help us navigate and respond to the world we live in, and from that perspective, using just two of them may not be ideal are. “The more information we have,” says Scheller, “the better we are able to actually act in our environment.”

Instead of clinging to digital technologies that can stimulate our neglected senses, Scheller suggests that for now we would do well to get outside and see our friends in person, feel the breeze on our skin and smell the roses. After all, as far as our devices are concerned, we haven’t smelled anything yet.