A smell can do more than remind us of something. It can take us back to a moment to relive its emotional intensity. Like Proust’s madelaine, a scent can set off an involuntary reaction that bypasses the rational brain, allowing us to feel without thinking.
In Singapore, a project is using smell as a kind of therapy: evoking memories in people who have forgotten the past, or become disengaged from the present. Developed by the JWT creative agency, the idea is to use "smell kits" to reanimate the memories of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, taking them back to pleasanter times.
The kits include dozens of smells designed according to the ethnicity and age of the patient. They include food like chili or garlic and concoctions that evoke certain situations, like childhood bedtime (talcum powder, lavender, clean sheets), or "school days." The kits even include odors that no longer exist (but are resonant to people in their 60s or 70s), such as the stink of old Singaporean fishing villages (known as "kampungs") or fireworks that are now banned nationwide.
"We realized that [caregivers] use visual stimulus like photographs, or conversation and music, but they never use smell," says Juhi Kalia, executive creative director for JWT Singapore. "Smell is like a short-circuit. It’s the short path to your brain, and takes you back emotionally."
The kits are made by JWT’s client Givaudan, a Swiss company. JWT has tested them with two nursing homes in Singapore, and Kalia says the results have been positive so far.
"A lot of the patients withdraw and are not communicative. After a point, a lot of families don’t visit every day, and they get lonely. The smells are a conversation starter. It draws them out and connects them a bit more. It opens up their personality."
JWT is talking to two large hospitals, and several dementia support organizations, about trialling the kits further. Givaudan wants to distribute them widely, but hasn’t decided what smells to include, and whether to sell or give the kits away.