How does our sensory environment change?

UEF Bulletin 2017

There have been drastic changes in our sensory environment over the past couple of decades. At the same time, digitalisation has changed the way we experience our environment. Digital natives born in the 2000s are likely to have a different relationship with their environment than their grandparents who grew up in the 1950s.

Text Sari Eskelinen Photo Raija Törrönen

There is no time like the present to study sensory environments and their significance, says Professor Helmi Järviluoma. It is still possible to use ethnographic methods to study the generation that grew up without television and smart devices. At the same time, researchers can collect data from today’s children for whom digitalisation is nothing new.

“Understanding of human sensory relationships is linked to the more extensive question of the ecological and cultural sustainability of our environment. The future of humankind is largely determined by our environment relationship.”

According to Järviluoma, millennials have their own ways to connect with the environment, and the recent Pokémon GO craze is just one example.

“For the younger generations, digital devices and the environment can be closely linked.”

This is a phenomenon which, according to Järviluoma, warrants further research, and the SENSOTRA project she leads addresses the very topic.  

“One of the lines of my research focuses on how sensory environments are experienced via technological devices. Our approach to the phenomenon is neutral; we don’t judge,” Järviluoma says.

In March 2016, Järviluoma was awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council, ERC. ERC funding is highly competitive, and in Finland, a similar funding in the field of the humanities has been awarded only once before. Although Järviluoma is a highly merited scholar, this recognition took her by surprise.

“For many weeks, it felt like I was on cloud nine without any real worries,” Järviluoma says, laughing.

Now the initial euphoria has turned into intense preparation for the SENSOTRA project. The project is international and it studies the sensory environments of nearly 200 people in three European cities: Ljubljana in Slovenia, Brighton in the UK and Turku in Finland.

“It was a conscious choice to select three medium-sized cities, because they haven’t been studied much – although the majority of people in Europe live in places of this size.”

People participating in the study will go on a sensory memory walk together with a researcher. The participants include those who were children in the 1950s and 1960s as well as digital natives born in the 2000s. Half of the participants are artists representing different fields.

“Artists often have a special relationship with their sensory environment, and they also have means to express it in their art.”

The sensory memory walk is a research method developed by Järviluoma. She tested the method in summer 2015 by taking author Heikki Turunen to his childhood environment in Vuonislahti, Lieksa, in eastern Finland.

“That was phenomenal! If the other sensory memory walks are anything like that, our study will be amazing.”

In addition to the author’s personal sensory memories, the sensory memory walk also surfaced memories that are shared by the entire post-war generation.

“I’m interested in the relationship between a person's own history and shared sensory memories. I claim that we have surprisingly many shared sensory memories. For my generation, the scent of the elementary school lobby is one example.”

The study seeks to tap into what the shared sensory memories are and how they differ between different generations.

“People used to live in more local contexts, and the differences in their sensory memories may be greater. Thanks to globalisation, it is more than likely that people nowadays have more shared sensory memories also in the global context,” Järviluoma says, speculating.

Last autumn, Järviluoma ventured into a completely new genre and published her first collection of short stories.

“I’ve always written, including fiction. The texts I had in my drawer finally became a collection of short stories on a writing course organised by the Arts Councils operating in eastern Finland. As a child, my husband Matti Mäkelä wanted to be a professor, but ended up being a writer. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a writer, but ended up being a professor. Now the tables are momentarily turned, as Matti defended his dissertation in the field of literature, and I’m publishing fiction,” Järviluoma says, laughing.

For the esteemed ethnomusicologist, 2016 was a great year.

“Some of my long-term dreams came true. My first collection of short stories is ready, and I can now focus on a research project I’ve been dreaming of.”