The Science of Smell

| July 14, 2016 | 0 Comments

girl holding a bouquet of white flowers

As humans, we tend to rely most on our senses of vision and hearing. However, there’s something undeniably powerful about the sense of smell. Scent has a powerful, often subconscious effect on our mood, behavior, romance, and even our mental health.

Why Is Scent So Powerful?

All of the senses are processed in different lobes in the cerebrum, EXCEPT for smell, which is processed in the limbic system. The limbic system is sometimes called the “emotional brain” because it’s where our emotional responses originate.

It’s also where we develop long-term memories, produce hormones, and regulate bodily functions.

Scent receptors are finely tuned and able to interpret a huge variety. In fact, 3% of our genes exist solely to perceive and categorize scent. In vision, all colors humans perceive are constructed of a combination of three kinds of light receptors.

The human tongue can sense 5-6 different tastes. Contrast that with our scent receptors. We have thousands of smell receptors, and can record thousands of unique, individual smells.

Each of those recorded smells is usually logged with an extraordinarily strong and vibrant memory. Smell is often cited as an amazingly subjective sense, but in actuality, it’s very scientifically direct.

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Biophysicist Luca Turin studies the science of smell. He’s the author of Perfumes: The Guide, and the subject of Chandler Burr’s 2003 book The Emperor of …

Cinnamon to me will smell the exact same way to you, a fact that perfumers throughout time have built their craft upon. The thing that makes scent (and our likes and dislikes of them) so subjective is its powerful connection with memory.

Memory and Scent

As we mentioned, scent is processed in the limbic system. Electrical impulses from our scent receptors will travel a circuitous path past our emotional center and our long-term-memory factory before even before they’re recognized and catalogued.

Because scent is so closely tied to emotional response and long-term memories, a scent will quite suddenly summon up certain associations and emotions from our past. Studies have shown that memories triggered by scent (as opposed to other senses) are older, more vivid, and usually from childhood.

Smells can easily create conditioned responses, wherein a certain smell will evoke a certain emotion due to the memory that it summons. Therefore, although chlorine smells the same to everyone, it might be met with aversion by one person, who happens to have had a hard time learning how to swim at the public pool as a child.

Another person will look on the smell of chlorine with fondness by someone else, for whom it summons up happy memories of summertime fun.

Scent and Emotions

Our ability to smell, might pale in comparison to most animals, but scent is still an essential part of the human experience.

Aww something smells so bad!Problems with a sense of smell have been linked to various mental disorders: anything from Alzheimers, to depression, to autism. A lack of a sense of smell can dramatically reduce our ability to connect with the world and the people in it.

Remember what we said about the limbic system being closely tied to scent? And how the limbic system is where emotions and memories come from?

Well, one of the most powerful emotions that scent can be associated with is fear, or, on the other end of the spectrum, calmness. This is why aromatherapy can have a strong impact on mental health, especially with anxiety disorders.

Scent and Attraction

One of our favorite areas to explore the science of smell is in human attraction. In other words… do perfumes really do what we want them to? While many studies are biased or inconclusive (for example, thus far, there’s no proof of human pheromones), it’s clear that if nothing else, smell can create conditioned responses in us.

For example, it doesn’t take long for us to start associated someone with their signature scent. Thereafter, whenever we smell that scent, our mood, attraction, and desires will be tempered by the memories that have been built with that person.

One interesting thing about scent, when it comes to romantic attraction, is the difference between men and women. In just about every test for scent sensitivity, women outscore men.

This is reflected in the value that men and women place on scent in terms of sexual attraction. While men rank visual attractiveness as the most important determiner of attractiveness in the opposite sex, women overwhelmingly rated smell as the most important factor when choosing a sexual partner, outranking physical attractiveness and social status.

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In one landmark study, women were asked to rate the attractiveness of t-shirts marked with the body odor of different men. Researchers found that women tended to be most attracted to signature scents that belonged to men with different immunity capabilities than them. In other words, the more genetically un-like a man’s odor print is, the more attractive.

Scent and Buying Power

One recent study found that the smell of peppermint motivated people to work out harder and faster, and with a more positive attitude. If smell can have that immediate of an effect on motivation, why not use it to drive buyer motivation?

Nike found that people are more likely to buy shoes if the store smells like flowers. For years, realtors and house stagers have utilized smell to make a place feel like home and increased perceived value.

Disney parks are known for using “smellitizers” to create a sensory experience for guests: from the b

riny scent of the sea in Pirates of the Carribbean, to the scent of fresh-baked cookies or taffy as you walk along Main Street.

Knowing what we do about emotion and memory, this can make recollections of the experiences in the park more vivid and easily summoned by similar smells.

And then, of course, there’s the way that smell can motivate us to buy food. This is a no-brainer, and used so widely that it should come as no surprise to learn that KFC pumps the smell of deep-fried chicken out into the air on purpose.

If you do a survey and ask people which sense they’d willingly give up, the answer will almost overwhelmingly be “smell.” However, scent is more important to us than we realize. It influences our diet, or relationships, and our habits. In fact, it’s been found that we can even smell happiness.


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