Our project team has spent months exploring the relationship between nature, sensory experiences and wellbeing. We started in February 2018 with a data ‘crowdsourcing’ exercise in which we asked for responses to questions online and in person (with a range of members of the public, including young people, community groups and an extra care facility). You can see some of the responses and contribute your own here: HERE
Our original plan was to feed this research into an immersive experience, using 360 degree sound and smell technologies. This plan changed slightly during the crowdsourcing and prototyping stages of the project, when we saw the potential for responses to smell/sound experiences in themselves to be productive stages of the research process (rather than an ‘output’ or ‘product’). Early engagement with prototypes of our immersive experiences evoked varied comments about the relationship between the non-visual senses, nature and wellbeing for participants. Whereas the crowdsourcing responses tended to give fairly traditional and similar answers (cut grass, birdsong, lavender, waves), responses to the immersive experiences were more personal. People talked about memory and visualisation, about their lives and what ‘wellbeing’ meant to them.
For this reason, we shifted the goal of our ‘immersive experiences’ event in August. Rather than presenting an experience that we thought would capture or create ‘wellbeing’, we used the experience to explore these themes of memory and visualisation. We asked participants to respond to their experiences in a range of ways – including through arts or written reflection and interviews – and observed their engagement with three different sensescapes as they went through the experience.
We designed three sensory ‘rooms’ that would allow us to ask some of the following questions:
What does ‘wellbeing’ mean to people, what ‘nature(s)’ achieve this for them and why?
What do people gain from focusing on their non-visual senses?
What feelings, memories, imagined landscapes (or other) do non-visual sensescapes evoke, and how does this vary between people?
How does a more ‘literal’ non-visual sensescape (‘the beach’ ‘the meadow’) compare with a more evocative, abstract and potentially disorienting one?
How much control do people want over immersive sensescapes: is too much choice overwhelming, or desirable?
Would people want to engage with such technologies or experiences in ‘real life’, and if so how?
We will be writing up some of our findings from this data soon, and a video of the immersive experience event is forthcoming. In the meantime, we thought you might enjoy some photographs of the event and four of the soundscapes we created for the experience.
Edward Lear, 1812–1888, British, A View of the Pine Woods Above Cannes, 1869 (Watercolour and gumming with pen in brown and blue ink, and scraping out, over graphite on thick, rough, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
We have all come across pine as a scent used in everything from those tree shaped car air-fresheners to toilet cleaner. But how did we get from the smell emanating from a tree or a forest of pines to a cleaner that ‘freshens your bathroom with a refreshing Pine scent’?* Somehow we have developed a shared understanding that when we smell the scent of pine, like that of lemon, we agree for the most part that it means ‘clean’, or in the advertising words relating to Ajax Pine Forest All Purpose Cleaner, that the ‘pleasant pine fragrance signals cleanliness’.
In this blog, project partner Ronald Ligtenberg challenges the perception of deafness as a ‘limitation’ and explores the contribution that smell – and the sharpening of non-auditory perception – can make to everyday lives:
In short story The Country of the Blind (1904), H. G. Wells describes an interesting phenomenon. While climbing a fictitious mountain, a mountaineer named Nuñez slips and falls down the far side of the mountain. At the end of his descent, he finds a valley, cut off from the rest of the world. Without knowing he has discovered the fabled ‘Country of the Blind’: an isolated community that had prospered over the years, the people’s remaining senses had sharpened, and the community had fully adapted to life without sight.
Discovering that everyone is blind, Nuñez remembers the saying, ‘In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King’. He assumes that he can teach and rule them, but as the villagers have no concept of sight they do not understand his words. Nuñez gets frustrated, but reluctantly submits to their way of life. Then he falls in love with a girl and Nuñez starts trying to explain sight to her. She, however, simply dismisses it as his imagination. When Nuñez asks for her hand in marriage, he is turned down by the village elders on account of his ‘unstable’ obsession with ‘sight’. The village doctor suggests that Nuñez’s eyes be removed, claiming that they are diseased and are affecting his brain. At the end of the story, Nuñez manages to escape.
In this society, something similar is happening. Many consider a deaf or blind person mostly as someone who cannot do something. Yes, they cannot hear or see like other people can, but we tend to forget the fact that most have sharpened their senses as well. My company has started using these apparent ‘limitations’ as a source of inspiration:
In 2003 my company, Possibilize, created multi-sensory music concerts for deaf people. Using the emotion of the music, we came up with matching scents, tastes, light effects, video projections and vibrating patterns for every song. The events, called Sencity are now happening all over the world and have travelled to five continents. Using the ‘limitation’ as an inspiration lead to a more innovative experience than found in other nightclubs.
While working with deaf people I also noticed the strength of their interpersonal communication, including their ability to read body language. This observation lead to a format for a workshop for corporate companies where deaf trainers come in and provide training to managers on their body language – a highly underestimated yet crucial communication tool.
Our expertise on sensorial influence lead pretty soon to a spin-off company called Sense Company, in which the sense of smell was further analysed. Again the applications are numerous. Hotels, shops and even airports got interested. The influence that smell has on consumer behaviour is huge; big industries know about this and they are constantly feeding and directing us by using scents that encourage, calm or make us want to stay longer.
It wouldn’t hurt to be more aware of how senses combine and interact with each other, so let this blog be a plea for more research and publications around this topic. Let it also be a plea for more respect for people with a sensorial ‘limitation’, which could be an indication for a more developed sense as well. The knowledge that the lack of one sense leads to improvement of another isn’t new. And now the time has come for a paradigm shift around this topic. Our society is still more about fixing what is broken, according to our standards. It is time, instead, to capitalise on the unexpected talents that come above the surface once we look beyond the ‘limitation’ and their potential value within everyday life.
In the meantime, thanks to the AHRC and EPSRC ‘Immersive Experiences’ funding we can actually do more research on the role of the senses in relation to wellbeing. The influence that the sense of smell can have on wellbeing is immense. The smell of rose gives immediate comfort, the smell of bread makes you hungry and the smell of mould warns you for danger. Scents can bring you back to your oldest memories within a split second. Although everybody has different associations, there is also a lot of universal interpretation, just like there is with colour. This association gives us the opportunity to use scents to establish a certain effect. But how do scents relate to their context? How and what exactly do smells add to the experience of an environment? These are two questions I would love to explore in ‘A Sense of Place’, hoping to be able to provide more value to the use of scents in public spaces.
In this project blog Dr Helen Manchester writes about a recent project with another Co-Investigator on A Sense of Place, Kirsten Cater, and how it fuelled their interest in the senses, memory & nature:
Designs by Heidi Hinder and Dr Peter Bennett
Kirsten Cater and I came to this research project having worked together on The Tangible Memories research project. The project involved us working to co-design a set of new digital tools to address some of the key societal challenges concerning the care and wellbeing of older people and the legacy of the memories and stories that they leave for future generations. Bringing together an interdisciplinary team including digital artists and makers, learning researchers, computer scientists, historians, older people and their carers and families, we are exploring how tangible technologies might be developed to enhance democratic community building and to engage residents in care homes in multisensory experiences. Our research and co-design work has produced a range of technological prototypes for older people, some specifically for those living with dementia.
As an ethnographic researcher interested in lifelong learning, more tangible ways of knowing and stories I wanted our work to acknowledge the different material and immaterial prompts, responses and forms of sense making that older adults engage in through recognising our connections to ‘things’ as well as people, to the evocation possible through visits to places, through smells and through music. I wanted the team to appreciate and encourage the creative acts of cultural collection and production through which people make sense of their own lives and identities and make connections with the lives of others. Through our developing relationships we hoped to enhance opportunities for older adults in ‘the fourth age’ to share and make sense of their lives and their sense of self now and to think together about their possible future lives, perhaps better coping with the often intense feelings of loss and instability that they may experience as they move into and live in care home settings.
In a facility for those with more advanced dementia we were often greeted by residents asking us to ‘let them out’ or by others walking along the corridors with coats on or over their arms, looking to leave at the first opportunity. This is, of course, partly a symptom of their illness but we also noticed a disconnect from the outdoors and nature for these residents, although these aspects of their previous lives were often discussed in conversations with us. For instance, Eric would discuss his cycling holidays and Enid her days out on the coast. As a result of these conversations and observations we worked alongside residents and staff to develop a prototype that enabled us to bring nature into the care setting, which we felt could be a therapeutic experience for those unable to get outside and experience nature firsthand. The prototype is an ‘immersive sound’ rocking chair that plays sounds from nature, music and poetry, played through speakers in the chair’s headrests, and activated by the rocking motion. As the residents gently rock and listen to the dawn chorus, or to crickets singing on a summer’s evening, their journeys of the imagination can rekindle past memories and help to assist story sharing.
Residents’ reactions to our prototype chair were varied and left lasting impressions on all involved. Margaret, a former pilot, spent some time exploring the surface of the chair through touch, commenting that it reminded her of the cockpit of an aeroplane. Then, listening carefully to the different sounds emitting from the speakers embedded in the rocking chair’s headrests, she identified a woodpecker and an owl’s call among the chorus of birdsong, and she even cooed back to the owl in reply. As she heard the rhythmic sound of someone walking on snow, she lifted her legs up and down in time, keeping apace with them, and describing a vivid story to us about what was happening in her imagination: ‘The farmer’s on his way”. Jean, who usually doesn’t speak or sing, sat in the chair and sang ‘Rock a Bye baby’ from beginning to end, causing an emotional response from the care staff present. Further testing of the immersive sound rocking chair in additional settings has suggested a positive therapeutic benefit for those living with more advanced dementia through sensory engagement with the natural world.
These experiences of the immersion possible through sounds of nature and the embodied experience created through sitting in the sound chair made us want to work further of the power of the senses to evoke memories and stories and enhance quality of life. We’re looking forward to exploring this further, together with others, on this project.
Composer and project sensory consultant Stephanie Singer, reflects on the links between the senses and music in this month’s project blog:
Our perception of the world is multi-sensory, even though sometimes we’ll focus in on one sense when we need to; for instance, we smell the milk when we’re trying to work out if it is off or not. Our experience and interaction with the world around is created by our senses working in unity, it is a multi-sensory experience. This premise inspires me and thousands of other practitioners in the world to explore and delve into Sensorial Practice.
Five years ago I founded BitterSuite to change the way we listen to classical music. I wanted to create concert experiences where audiences were actively and imaginatively engaged throughout the piece.
I wondered if we could stimulate the senses of audiences in ways which evoke the same sensations being communicated by the music… Will this deepen the experience of listening?
Since then we have developed four choreographed sensory concerts each using sound, taste, touch, smell and movement.
In a BitterSuite concert every audience member is paired with a dancer who blindfolds and leads them through this choreographed sensory experience. The experience moves in synchrony with the live music. Audience members are moved, danced, fed and surrounded in smells – each sense intentionally stimulated to deepen the way they listen to that moment. Our experiences are designed to feel seamless, where the music and sensory is wholly intertwined.
The process of making is a complex and lengthy process – and a true feat of collaboration bringing together dancers, somatic practitioners, musicians, composers, perfumers and chefs.
What have we discovered about touch?
Though we work with smell & taste our journey has allowed us to discover the uniqueness of touch.
Being touched, when it is at its most affecting, can mute the sounds, colours and world around us. Everything else dissolves and we want to focus purely on the touch itself. Who can forget the electrifying and full body sensation of touching someone, or being touched by someone that we love or are attracted to?
When we come to curating musical sensory experiences we quickly notice that human touch and movement offer a number of uniquely affecting things.
Touch can be soft, loud, strong, emotional and rhythmic.
And we can train this sense of touch like a masseuse or somatic practitioner to communicate these ideas clearly and effectively through the body of another.
Touch is communication.
When we touch someone in with intention in a specific part of the body we have the power to communicate emotional ideas, directions and instructions. If I tenderly hold the base of your skull it communicates a different emotion than if I coldly press two fingers into your sternum.
Touch is intimate.
It can release emotional information that people didn’t know was there, and as such it requires consent. It demands that the person touching is trustworthy and careful.
Touch breaks down barriers and forms trusting and deep relationships.
Once you are blindfolded and being touched it puts our dancers in a position of responsibility and care. They are the guide. This means that the relationships formed between dancer & audience member are deep.
Touch can move in perfect synchrony with live music.
Because human touch is obviously controlled by a person, it can ebb and flow as freely as a live musician. It is for this reason that tactile experiences, greater than any other sensorial experience, can feel seamless. The touch can move and flow with the music at whatever change of tempo or phrasing the live musicians have in the moment.
Touch is music
When we break it down touch is as nuanced and rhythmic as music itself. It feels loud, it communicates; the difference is that it is the body of the person being touched that is ‘being played. And, when we think about it, all sound comes down to touch anyway. Sound physically touches the tiny hairs within our cochlear and causes them to translate the vibration / frequency heard into our auditory cortex.
For this reason, I feel that touch is an under-looked and incredible tool for new music experiences. When used wisely, just like sound, touch can communicate emotions non-verbally and deeply.
What about taste & smell?
In our experiences we include the careful stimulation of the other senses. But taste & smell offer less musical nuance because fundamentally we cannot control the timing. We cannot insist that somebody chews and releases flavour at a certain time.
So if we select a flavour for a specific moment but the audience member doesn’t chew it in time – there is a chance that a flavour designed for one very particular passage of the music may be tasted late or early.
Likewise with smell it is very hard, without disrupting the flow to get somebody to sniff – short of saying “Smell this” or giving a gesture. But … that’s not really the all encompassing experience we want.
Learn the language of touch ! Learn it because it can communicate and unlock emotions in a beautiful and meaningful way, it’s rhythmic and packed full of subtleties. Learn it because most of all use human touch is intimate, it reminds us of something fundamental – and it can communicate profoundly.
Wanna find out more?
There is a wealth of literature and work exploring these ideas in depth.
Top names: Prof. C Spence, Bauhaus, Prof. A Furse, Scriabin “The Clavalux”, Prof. B Smith, Prof. D Howes, Daniel Levitin, Allen Weiss, Sarah McCartney, Emilie Baltz, Adam Thomason, Open Senses, Verity Stanton, Tereza Stehlikova, and more.
The people behind BitterSuite: Stephanie Singer, Anna Pearce, Eileih Muir, Ashraf Ejjbair, Adam Thomason, Sarah McCartney, Linz Nakorn, Marah Wilson, Lawrence Becko, The Phaedra Ensemble, Phil Grannel and many, many more.
Thanks to those who talked to us today about smells, sounds and happy places. We loved hearing about your memories!
We want to hear from the wider public too, so please do add your own responses to the Padlet. We are going to make some of our favourite responses into smells and sounds for an immersive public event in August.
The Cider House, which offers Bed and Breakfast, on the National Trust owned estate of Buckland Abbey offers a sensory natural retreat for weary travellers. They pronounce that there is ‘something rather magical about enjoying the gardens once the Estate is closed, a real privilege and indulgence of all the senses; bird song, flowing water, the scents and sights of the garden and the essence of tranquillity that embodies the Estate, all combine to offer the most wonderful tonic for the mind and soul’. Here the mind and soul are to be revived through a range of sensory interactions which include bird song, scent, flowing waters and that ineffable ‘essence of tranquility’. The lack of humans and elements of urbanised civilization are here seen as essential for a full ‘natural’ sensory experience.
This idea of nature as a sensory balm has a long cultural history. In his 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton discusses the curative powers of both nature tamed, within in gardens, and nature in the raw. To illustrate this he includes a quote, claimed to be from St Bernard:
A sicke man (saith he) sits upon a greene banke, and when the dog-starre parcheth the Plaines, and dries up rivers, he lies in a shadie bowre, …and feeds his eyes with variety of objects, hearbes, trees, to comfort his misery, hee receaves many delightsome smels, and fills his ears with that sweet harmony of Birds…
Here the visual tonic was enhanced by a range of other sensual natural delights. However, Burton did not necessarily exclude human traces in his descriptions of therapeutic places. He argued that ‘the most pleasant of all outward pastimes is that of Aretus, deambulatio per amaena loca, to make a petty progresse, a merry journey now and then with some good companions’. Within his list of cures for melancholy he included visiting friends, cities, castles, towns, fields and designed landscapes. The inclusive sensory experience described here does not exclude other people or privelige nature over the manmade.
However, today, even in very designed settings such as hospital gardens, there is a tendency to highlight the natural, particularly in relation to the non-visual senses. In 2004 Swedish researcher Ingrid Söderback and her team described their ideal healing garden as having, ‘a plentiful variety of plant materials that flower in different seasons, attract birds and butterflies, with leaves and grass that move with a light breeze, pools that reflect the sky and provide a home for fish’. They go on to argue that although the garden should be open to all ‘it should be calm and quiet so that its voices (water-splash, birdsong) can be heard’. Here the sounds of nature are seen as more valuable to healing than those made by humans and perhaps provide the essence of tranquillity described in the opening quote. There is a clear hierarchy identified here which sees what is made by people as less valuable than the ‘natural’ for holistic healing, even though the ‘natural’ space is itself manmade.
Any distinction between the human and the natural is a false division, of course, but one that has been increasingly visible in modernity. The rise of high-technology environments in medicine, for example, have been good for treating the body but less beneficial for the spirit. As technologies have been increasingly criticised as ‘dehumanising’ influences on the environment, nature has come to represent a ‘(re)humanising’ force. Part of this role, as a balm for the spirit as much as the body, comes from the increasingly unusual sensory power of nature. Many modern built environments have controlled sensory environments, such as smells and sounds, and there is a common perception of modern hospitals as ‘unaesthetic’ spaces. This context helps us to understand the Cider House’s description of its multisensory natural landscapes as a ‘wonderful tonic for the mind and soul’, and the importance it places upon getting away from the built environment. As manmade environments have become more sanitised and less sensory, it seems that nature has become more human than the human.
 Ingrid Söderback, Marianne Söderström and Elizabeth Schälander, ‘Horticultural therapy: The ‘healing garden’ and gardening in rehabilitation measures at Danderyd Hospital Rehabilitation Clinic, Sweden’ in Pediatric Rehabilitation, 7 (2004) 245-60, p. 246.