A Map of the Smells of Newport, Rhode Island

Memories triggered by smell are more emotional than those triggered by sounds, pictures or words

A Map of the Smells of Newport, Rhode Island

Cartography is a supremely visual discipline. The vast majority of maps are made by looking, and to be seen. Of course there are exceptions. Tactile maps, in the style of Braille lettering, have been around since at least the 1830s (see #574).


These maps raise an interesting point [1]: they are made for the blind and visually impaired, but not by them. Just because we're used to maps being entirely visual, doesn't mean their sensory input needs to correspond to their sensory output. As in the case of the Braille maps, where the input is still visual, but the output is tactile. 

Just imagine the possibilities: multiply the two ends to the process with our five senses, that gives 25 potential permutations for sensory mapping. Some of them are actually quite common. Sound waves [2] are used to map the ocean floor: auditory input, visual output. Mountainous terrain is often best rendered in 3D, in tactile maps similar to the Braille ones mentioned above (except that the touchable topography on the map corresponds to the actual relief of the terrain).

But take away the visual element on both sides of the process, and the sensory pairings are harder to imagine. A map gathered by touch, but rendered in smell? Or a cityscape of sounds, translated to taste? That sounds (or feels, or looks) like a job for an accomplished synaesthete [3], not for the mere mono-aesthetes that the most of us are. 

One step back from those far-flung fantasies are the smell maps produced by Kate McLean: olfactory [4] input, visual output. Her ongoing project Sensory Maps seeks to explore the links between smell, emotion and a sense of place. This map of summer smells in Newport, Rhode Island is a fantastic example. For, as she reminds us in the notes to this map, “memories triggered by smell are more emotional than those triggered by sounds, pictures or words”.

 As the name implies, Newport is a seaside town. It is located some 60 miles south of Boston, on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island. Its history and character are intimately entwined with the surrounding Atlantic, lapping the city on three sides.

Newport was Rhode Island's most important colonial port city, a hub for whaling, piracy and the slave trade. Once a rival to New York, the city now numbers less than 30,000 permanent residents. 

From the 18th century onwards, Newport reinvented itself as a holiday destination, earning nicknames such as America's Sailing Capital and Queen of the Summer Resorts. Many of those so-called Newport Mansions survive, some preserved as National Historical Landmarks.

Newport's appeal to New England's elite survived the Gilded Age, as evidenced by the fact that both presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had their so-called Summer White Houses here [5]. 

Newport is also a major naval town, formerly home to part of the US Atlantic Fleet and still the site of several US Navy schools. Its social calendar boasts a Jazz Festival and Folk Festival [6], and many sporting events (notably in boating, golf and tennis). 

Plenty to work with for Ms. McLean, who describes her charting of smell perceptions in the urban environment as 'sensory ethnography', and an 'alternative platform for meaningful communication'. In the case of Newport, is that just a fancy way of saying “smells like fish”? Let's have a sniff...

First of all, it must be said that for a map concentrating on the olfactory, this one is also very pleasing to the eye. Streets, shorelines and other elements of topography have been eradicated, giving centre stage to what seems a randomly distributed collection of beautifully coloured, radiant dots.

The colour of each dot corresponds to one of nine known smell origins, each apparently typical for a Newport summer: the ocean, beach roses, suntan oil, beer bars, juniper bushes, fudge/cookies/ice cream [7], bird's nests/hay, lobster bait and freshly cut timber.

The number of isobars surrounding each point indicate the intensity of the smell. Perfect circularity means that the smell stays local, elongated isobars denote both direction and distance of scent drift.

The data for this smell map was collated from aroma perceptions by Newport residents and visitors, through smell walks and bike rides and online questionnaires, and by the artist herself. Respondents were asked to identify a smell and then rate their 'nosings', from 1 (very weak) over 2 (weak) and 3 (distinct) through 4 (strong) and 5 (very strong) to 6 (intolerable).

The map shows an arc of ocean smell, in some places intermingled with the aroma of beach roses, elsewhere mixing with freshly cut timber or bird's nests, encircling a centre enveloped in a multitude of tasty odours: beer bars, and that irresistible conglomerate of fudge, cookies and ice cream.

That central area is a riot of smells, competing with each other for nasal prominence. Move away from the centre a bit, and you're finding places where two or three aromas mix to produce combinations so uniquely blended that a Newport resident, or a nostalgic visitor, might smell it, and be transported back to its exact place of origin: that particular mix of suntan oil and beach roses; an unmistakable combination of bird's nests and freshly cut timber; or a just-right cocktail of lobster bait and juniper bushes...

More on Kate McLean's Sensory Maps (including the Newport, RI map) here on her website. This high-resolution map found here on this page on fastcoexist.com.

Strange Maps #638

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

[1] Pun not intended

[2] Via sonar, short for sound navigation and ranging.

[3] Synaesthesia, literally the 'union of senses', describes a condition whereby stimulation of one sense leads to perceptions in another sense. Synaesthetes will 'sense' certain colours or tastes when reading, hearing or thinking about specific numbers, letters or days of the week, for example.

[4] TMy favourite sensory adjective! From olfactus, Latin for the sense of smell, deriving from oleo ('I smell'). The other sensory adjectives are: gustatory (taste), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch) and visual (seeing).

[5] Eisenhower holidayed at a house at Fort Adams, originally built in 1873 for Civil War general Henry Jackson Hunt, because it was close to the Newport Country Club, where he like to play golf. JFK at Hammersmith Farm – Jackie Kennedy's childhood home. New England is the location of many Summer White Houses, notably those of FDR (Campobello Island), George Bush Sr (Kennebunkport), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (both on Martha's Vineyard).

[6] Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 edition of the Newport Folk Festival, shocking many of his fans.

[7] Why mentioned together? Do they smell the same, or always co-occur?

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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