It was quite refreshing and interesting for me to work with an artist and a talented director on this project. Collaborating with an artist is a bit different than working on a strictly scientific project because the guidelines and the framework are different and less restrictive. It was exciting though. During our first discussion, I suggested working on a project related to co sleeping and smell since I had a similar experience working with a famous artist in the past at an art studio in Manhattan, so Joana (she is interested in the connection between scent and self) and I brainstormed and came up with the idea of working on this T-Shirt project. The importance of sex in a healthy relationship is clear. How can we be comfortable only having sex with one other person? Sometimes, when a couple has been together for a long time, they don’t try new techniques or stop having sex on a regular basis.
Monogamous relationship is the perfect magic box to evolve sexually. We can bring the best qualities of our intimacy into the bedroom, having a trusted partner to experiment with. We believe odors can elicit a range of emotions. When it comes to sexual attraction, we can sniff out our perfect match by the body odor which is influenced by Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) molecules. The body odor can provide a signal of compatibility for potential mates and an attraction for shared sexual views. This similarity in values increases the likelihood partners are able to stay together for a long time. Does our sense of smell lead to monogamy?
The experience of chatting with Pooneh on a regular basis brought to my attention the role of scent in relationships and in sleep and to consider smell as a medium in itself. During the course of these few months I learned more about the science of smell with my good friend Amy Anthony, an aromatherapist, and more about sewing from another good friend Emilee Crosswell (who managed to teach me how to use a sewing machine via FaceTime!).
Initially, I was interested in examining the origin of body odour in our microbiome, connecting neatly to the trajectory of my work so far. I did some initial experiments culturing the microbiome of myself, my husband and my son - from our bodies and samples from our bed. The initial results were not terribly exciting and I felt I should use this opportunity to explore new ground. I became very interested in the connection between scent and self, how we manipulate our scent accidentally and deliberately, much as we do with everything else we use to express ourselves. I have a few projects in mind to continue to explore the continuity and discontinuity of our aural selves.
We got excited about a collaborative project initially aimed at helping a particular person, very sensitive to smell, find love, by sleeping with the scents of strangers. After some pushing, this idea went beyond the notion of dating to be about whether we find happiness in cosleeping with others, via their scent - Voulez-vous coucher pour moi?
We had started by examining Sense Dating, which made us sensitive to exploring the dating angle: how would our project make a contribution to this space? Just last week, Pooneh discovered another related, fantastic project called Smell Dating by Tega Brain. Similar to Sense Dating, participants provide a T-shirt for others to smell but also receive themselves a set of shirts to pick from.
How do deal with this type of alignment? For me, it’s a signal that the idea is important. Art that exists alone is likely talking to itself. Art that exists in a context with other voices, is participating in a dialog. This discovery is not as reason to stop, but a reason to move forth and contemplate rigorously the artistic and scientific motivations of the project. Voulez-Vous adds to the conversation by looking beyond sexual/romantic relationships at the broader conception of love/comfort and the unconscious context of sleep.
Looking at these other projects helped us double down in this direction and I revised the essay and materials to ensure it explicitly invites participants of all genders and sexual orientations. In the social context of in/divisiveness we are experiencing in the U.S., this message also seems to resonate.
The first six T-shirts have been packed and I have a few more volunteers already signed up. as soon as I can get them to the post office. I expect that it’ll take us another month or two to get all of the t-shirts out, back, to our test subject and slept with. The final output of the project is still to be defined, although I envision a graph of “happiness,” documentation of each pillow in the morning and the pillows themselves to play a role.
ONLY TWO MORE VOLUNTEERS NEEDED!
Looking beyond this project, there are many ideas I hope to come back to!
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Pooneh Heshmati is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist, physician, and post doctoral researcher at Northwell Health in New York.
Joana Ricou is an award-winning NYC-based artist, and creative director of Regenerative Medicine Partnership for Life.