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Atmosphere as ineffable qualities perceived by smell

Atmosphere as ineffable qualities perceived by smell

29 October 2019

The word “atmosphere” alludes to the “climate” present in an environment and to certain ineffable qualities that we perceive thanks to our most evocative and subliminal sense: the sense of smell. This brief note puts some landmarks about the expressive role of smell in creating and influencing atmospheres.

Atmosphere is a term we use in our everyday language and that we appreciate for its poetic “ambiguity”. Atmosphere and smell share a spatial dimension and an undefined ontological nature. They are “impressions radiated by space”, almost ‘devoid of reality as opposed to full things’ and defined as “quasi-things” by Tonino Griffero, Aesthetics Professor at Tor Vergata University of Rome.

Griffero has dedicated numerous essays and books to the subject of “atmosphere”, adding to the ideas of a certain group of contemporary German scholars. At Smell Festival 2019, thanks to Griffero, we had the chance to deepen the close link between scent and the perception of environments. This bond is familiar to us and is often spoken of in relation to “olfactory marketing”, but also deserves to be treated in depth and to have its close relation to space truly appreciated.

“In the 20th century, philosophers concentrated on Time” explains Griffero, “whereas in the 21st century, Space is now at the forefront.” This is not merely topographic space, but “atmospheric” space, full of feelings whose subtle characteristic manifest themselves through evocative qualities of scent.

“Merely a trace of perfume or a distant scent can determine an atmosphere within the imaginary world”, writes Gaston Bachelard.

We often say that perfume speaks the language of emotions and can translate (in the etymological sense of “drawing-out”) our moods. In order to validate this phenomenon, we refer to the link between the olfactory system and the part of our brain which processes our emotions. This notion reinforces our belief that emotions are a product of our inner personal and subjective life.

Perhaps the most original aspect of the “philosophy of atmospheres” and Griffero’s research is the idea that atmospheres and situations transfer emotions to us, and not vice versa. Atmospheres are defined as emotional states that we perceive in certain environments. They are feelings which can be sensed through our sensorial perceptions, especially through the sense of smell. We just need to “smell the air” in order to understand a situation.

The question here is: how can we “feel” emotions that are outside of us? How can we make them our own?

The well-known Mirror Neuron Theory demonstrates that images (as well as thoughts) activate conscious and semi-conscious motor responses. This theory can be used in conjunction with Gibson’s Affordance Theory (the origin of ergonomics), according to which things transmit implicit information on what to do and what attitude to have in their presence. For example, the welcoming shape of an armchair that invites you to sit down and relax. In the same way, “Atmospheric Affordance” suggests us ways in which we should act in a situation or environment. This reasoning can be extended to scent and perfume which is picked up by our atmospheric sense, the sense of smell.  A room pervaded by the scent of cleanliness prompts us to act in a respectful manner, in the same way as the smell of incense and candles can incite religious believers to meditate.

Fascinating, you may say, but what is its purpose?

According to a certain school of thought, atmospheres are generated spontaneously, and it is impossible to construct them. However, it cannot be denied that atmospheres have been “created” by professionals. In his book “Atmospherology”, Griffero cites a few examples: scenography, event planning, marketing, rhetoric, museum displays, interior design etc. Furthermore, there is an ardent interest in the pairing of the study of atmopsheres and the design of public spaces.

If you are involved in this domain, Tonino Griffero’s interview at Smell Festival 2019 is sure to be of your interest. The Professor explains a few key concepts of his research and introduces us to the complexities of this subject, which deserves major consideration for all those who want to “create atmospheres” through the expressive qualities of scent.



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