How to Capture Smells Instead of Pictures

Nov 27 2015 Comments 0

People take photographs to help remember and share significant events in their life — births, weddings and holidays are all committed to film or memory card, with the advent of social media, sharing images of anything and everything is the new normal. Photos are great — but are we making the best of our senses? Let’s take a look at an idea that could potentially improve our memories and help us to relive our best experiences — the Madeleine.


The idea behind the Madeleine is to capture the scents associated with special moments in much the same way a camera (or phone) captures images. The scent would be captured by using a pump to draw the scent molecules over an adsorbent material in a vial.

The sample vial could then be sent to a lab — in much the same way that film was sent away to get our photographs developed. After desorbing or releasing the scent molecules from the material, the molecules could be separated and the relevant scent molecules analysed.

One method of separating and determining which molecules contribute to the smell would be to use a technique like gas chromatography linked to mass spectrometry along with a scent detection system — in the form of a scent specialist with their nose close to the end of the GC column. The analysis of volatile compounds by GC is discussed in the article, Trace Level VOC Analysis in Different Sample Matrices.

After deconstructing the scent and deciding on which molecules contribute to the overall smell — a perfumer could construct the smell from the many thousands of standards that are used to create perfumes and other smells. The newly created sample could then be used to recreate the original moment and help refresh or share the memory. But is it worth it? Are smells really that important to us?

How important are smells?

Smells are something most people take for granted. Unlike our sense of touch or sight, our sense of smell is something we are not conscious of all the time. But research has shown that our sense of smell is just as important to our lives — without smells our memories would not be the same.

Our olfactory system — the link between our smell receptors and the brain — is linked to our limbic system which is linked to emotion and memory. This isn’t news to retailers who use smells to tempt us into making purchases — fake bread smells are used to remind or tempt us to buy fresh bread.

We already use smells — albeit subconsciously — as memory triggers. The smell of the sea might take you back to a childhood holiday, or a scent picked up on a breeze reminds you of an old love affair.

Smell is a powerful trigger for humans, so the idea of capturing smells in a system like the Madeleine is something that one day could be as popular as a photo. What smells do you like?

Image from pixabay
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