Scentury: A Proposal For Using Scent to Help Treat PTSD


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Scentury, designed by Tahnee Pantig, is a product that offers immersive, visceral memory experiences through the use of scent. Created for the program's Affirming Artifacts class, Tahnee was inspired by emerging research—beyond the anecdotal—showing the strong relationship between our sense of smell and our memories and emotions. (Some scientists attribute this to the close proximity of the olfactory bulb to the amygdala and the hippocampus—two areas of the brain responsible for processing memory and emotion.)

There is burgeoning interest in the area of scent. Recently, Air Wick released a marketing video drawing a narrative around the power that scent can have for transporting people "back home." While Air Wick appeals to our sense of nostalgia and reminiscence, Scentury takes a different approach by leveraging this relationship through therapy techniques used to treat people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I drew from my own experience with a traumatic memory; how I could walk down the street, and the air can smell a particular way, and I’m hit with this very visceral memory. The memory is made more real—just by smell alone.”

One of the more successful forms of therapy for PTSD is known as "prolonged exposure therapy" (PE). With the help of a therapist, PE decreases distress associated with the trauma through repeated exposure to trauma-related thoughts, emotions and situations. Scentury is positioned as a potential tool for use in PE.

Tahnee explored two use cases of Scentury where PTSD is prevalent: soldiers returning from war, and survivors of sexual assault.

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For soldiers with PTSD, Scentury would be employed with PE as a way to revisit the memories associated with the trauma. Swabbing samples from a soldier's uniform and dog tags, the scents of the environment where the trauma took place—sweat, dirt, gun powder, for example—are collected and synthesized, then made available for use in exposure therapy. (One technique uses gas chromatography, where the sample is passed through a device, exposed to a particular gas, broken down into specific components, and then re-created using synthetic compounds.)

For survivors of sexual assault, the collection of samples can be taken from the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence kit (SAFE)—commonly used in sexual assault cases. These kits are already being used to collect and preserve evidence for use in investigations, and with the permission from the survivor, could be used to recapture scents for PTSD treatment.

“So much of our world consists of the visual: Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook all concern themselves with what can be seen. Many people are fleeing these platforms for lots of reasons, but I believe that one of them is the desire for more visceral, real experiences. Scentury can provide a possible doorway.”

Beyond therapeutic use, Scentury could have applications of wider appeal. Users could use the technology to create customized aroma kits that help to rebuild a particular memory; in the same way that photographs are taken to create a visual snapshot of a memory, Scentury can be used to capture “scentographs”—pictures using aromas. For example, knowing that a memorable holiday trip might later want to be recalled, users could use the product to gather scent samples along the way, enabling them to recreate the scentograph at a later date.

Philosophically, Scentury also responds to a contemporary culture overwhelmed with the visual. (The surge in usage of social/technical platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest reinforces the cultural power of "the image.") Indeed, there are instances where policy is decidedly anti-scent: The town of Burien, Washington, for example, has passed a law banning body odor, and increasingly, businesses are prohibiting the use of any type of fragrance in their establishments.

In the end, Scentury aims to change our understanding of the role and the power of scent and fragrance in our culture. Whether providing a vehicle for treating trauma, or giving people a way to recapture positive memories, Scentury can be seen as a system for leveraging scent. And although taking the form of a speculative design for now, the technology to actualize the platform exists. Tahnee hopes that this concept will begin to raise questions around the role of scent in our overly-visual culture, and provide a potential tool for positive therapeutic use.

See more work from Tahnee Pantig at www.tahneepantig.com/ and follow her @tahneepantig.