This is why smelling art is almost as important as painting it

The more we can represent ideas in various sensory ways, the more we’re bound to understand them and, more importantly, know what’s possible with them.

For example, I spend a lot of my time working with people making websites and mobile apps – basically a lot of creative, technical stuff.

Occasionally I’ll be talking with someone over the phone about a project, and they’ll be discussing what it is they’re looking for, and then it will hit me: I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

The conversation ends after an hour or so and I feel utterly lost. No matter how many questions I’ve asked or how detailed the person gets, the project just doesn’t make sense to me.

It isn’t until I sit down with a sheet of paper or my iPad and physically draw out a representation explaining the project that the idea clicks. If I can’t see what it is I’m working on, I just can’t fully grasp it.

Maybe you’re the same way.

Some of us, like me, are visual thinkers. We have to physically see an idea drawn out before we can understand it. This preference to thinking stems from psychological impacts we experience as we grow.

Basically, how we experience knowledge while growing-up affects how we learn and think, becoming our “learning style.”

While I’m a visual learner/thinker, others are auditory thinkers, who need to hear an idea in order to grasp it. While others are thinkers by doing, meaning they have to physically interact with some representation of an idea to understand it. Even more people think in terms of smell, taste, or a multitude of sensations.

Visual thinkers make for great designers, artists, or writers. They excel at quickly exploring and representing ideas visually, on paper or a computer screen. Picasso was a visual thinker, storing hundreds of thousands of sketches in his notebooks.

Auditory thinkers are commonly musicians or even engineers. They can hear the subtle distinction between one sound and another, something very few people can do at such a microscopic level. Mozart was an auditory thinker. According to reports of his life, Mozart would often think and discuss ideas only in terms of notes and chords.

Physical thinkers are those who yearn to work with their hands, crafting elegant products like pottery and furniture manually. They have a knack for feeling their way around objects rather than merely relying on sight, sound, taste, or smell for working.

There are other types of critical thinkers as well, of course. From wine and perfume testers who utilize their uncanny sense of smell, to chefs who rely on their expert palettes to create remarkable dishes.

It’s valuable to know what type of thinker you are and to discover what type of learning and processing you do best.

The only way to discover which type of thinker you are is, of course, to try different methods. Draw conversations you have, try to use a handful of clay to physically shape ideas, use a guitar to write a melody for a project.

There’s more value to the different ways we think though. Apart from discovering what type of learning style you prefer, try utilizing multiple styles to work with ideas – this method will result in multiple perspectives of any given idea.

Multiple perspectives increase your understanding of an idea and allow you to see (or smell, or taste, or feel, etc.) what’s possible with it. Smell the work you’re doing, taste it (when appropriate), sit blindfolded and try to listen to or smell it. Find a way to play with an idea physically, moving it around with your hands or draw out a representation of the idea as best you can.

Many studies have shown the more sensory input we have of an object, the better we understand it.

When you smell something, different areas of your brain become active than if you were to touch it, or see it, or hear it.

Each different area of the brain activating in response to stimulus, when combined, can equate to a broader understanding of what it is you’re interacting with.

How can you possibly know what mood a painting will convey if you don’t get a good sniff of what the canvas smells like? Or, taking this notion from a more creative angle, if you have an idea don’t simply write it down. Draw it out. Try to imagine what it might smell like, or taste like. Go into the kitchen and create piles of ingredients that reflect the idea.

The more we can represent and tinker with an idea in various sensory ways, the more likely we are to fully understand it and ensure it’s the best, most creative possibility.

Photo by Tony Alter.