Rediscovering Scents


Coming home for the summer has given me the chance to experience nights out quite often. I am not talking about those late evenings when you plan on chilling at home, but the next moment you are in a club dancing on the table and drinking tequila shots…no. I mean that purposeless strolling around the streets with a cup of ice cream and a bunch of your best friends, spending hours discussing topics ranging from America’s current political situation to a recent breakup. And it was then… just between my last spoon of strawberry ice cream and the next sound of exclamation from my friend, that I felt it, so powerfully, it was completely overwhelming. It was not something that somebody said, but a subtle scent I smelled that brought be back to an old memory from my childhood. I can’t describe it or give it a name, but it was there and evoked such strong emotions that I couldn’t pass it by.

Since then I can’t stop thinking about it, so I started a vast research into the power and psychology of scents, which eventually led me to writing this article.

What I initially thought is that we vastly underestimate our sense of smell, which turns out to be also our oldest one. But why is this? What actually happens to our brains when we perceive a certain smell?

Just like taste, smell is a chemical sense, so the receptors that detect it are called chemoreceptors. As a result of a specific odorant stimulating them, our nose detects the smell and the chemoreceptors pass on electrical impulses to our brain, which recognizes the signals as specific odours. This becomes a sensation and as a result we recognize a smell. The number of odours we can detect, however, is much greater than the ones we can name.

As a general rule, we are not used to talking about smell the way we discuss other sensations such as how we perceive the look of a specific object, or the sound of somebody’s voice, for instance. We don’t even have words for most of the smells, like we say for something that it smells like chocolate. We could say it is brown by the way we see it, but can’t describe the way it smells in any other manner except for naming the object itself. A valid reason for this is the number of scent receptors (around 1000), compared to this of other senses such as sight and touch with only four receptors.

Having said that, why do people perceive the same smell in a different way? Researches show that our sense of smell is closely linked to our memories. This turns out to be the reason for my amazement when I smelled that fragrance. According to experts of psychology of the smell, what is called odour-evoked autobiographical memory is being built during the early stages of our lives, until around the point we reach 10 years old, and connects certain events occurred in our childhood with specific smells. The reason this happens, statistics show, is that 75% of our emotions are generated by what we smell. What is more, the accuracy of olfactory memory is so immense that, studies have shown, we remember 65% of the event a whole year after it occurred, whereas our visual memory sinks to 50% only after a couple of months.

Not surprisingly, human beings use the accuracy of their sense of smell for purposes such as communication and socializing. Researches show that we instinctively turn to our abilities to subconsciously detect odour in social situations in order to evaluate the people we meet. It is quite surprising, for instance, that all of the gestures we have accumulated entirely instinctively, such as hand shaking, hugging, and even kissing, result from our inner curiosity for the person that stands in front of us. The areas we choose, of course, are by no means coincidentally picked- palms and heads are the most accessible concentrations of smell, so it should come as no surprise that kissing is actually a way of sniffing.

In this respect, people suffering from anosmia (a total or partial loss of sense of smell), are deprived of not only an important sense, but also the opportunity to successfully socialize, build strong relationships and experiences. As scents are an integral part of forming a specific memory, such people are able of acquiring new skills and learning facts, but lack the ability of creating strong memories and emotions.

Speaking of socialising and relationships, it is inevitable to mention the immense role scents play in attraction between people. According to the so called ‘T-Shirt Experiment’, where female volunteers are asked to evaluate the smell of several men’s T-shirts, soaked with solely their body odour, women prefer men, whose HLAs (human leukocyte antigens) are different from their own. This is to show how strong our instincts are in respect of choosing the most suitable mate, in other words, the one whose immune system offers protection from diseases different from our own. The result expected is, of course, a generation with twice better chances of survival.

As a rule of thumb, the approach of nature is quickly being accumulated by industry and the result is a massively expanding Global Market of Scents. I do not solely refer to the Global Fragrance Industry with annual sales revenue of $28.95 billion, but also the growing sector of trading with scents, supplying fragrance systems to various spots, such as shops and bakeries. As the majority of food sold is already packed, naturally there is no smell to lure customers inside a candy shop, for instance. What owners do, however, is artificially recreate the delicious smell of candy, so that buyers could be involved in the process of shopping with their most powerful sense.

In fact, this is becoming an even more popular approach, as big names on the market start to play on customers’ sense of smell by inventing their own scent, a strategy with a result pretty similar to the invention of a simplistic and effective logo. The effect on the consumer, however, is much wider than just creating a sensation for a particular brand. A massive subconscious effect on the customers is connected to the amount of time they spend in the shop with a specific scent making them lose track of it.

Turns out that according to the mood we would like to create, we are able to manipulate people using their weakest point- the sense of smell, so closely linked to their emotions. With even more business strategies and clever ways of manipulation, I believe we are going to rediscover and re-evaluate this so precious sense we have been so shamefully neglecting until now.



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