Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Power of Scent; Smell Your Way to Happiness

Recently, the fragrance subscription service Scent Trunk has announced a devotion of 1.5% of their sales to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation as a way to show their support in the fight against mental illness. In response, I felt inspired to finally tackle a topic that I've been quietly conceptualizing for some time now. A perfect time to applaud the Scent Trunk team (a group of truly lovely people) for their generous and thoughtful contribution, and to take the opportunity to discuss the functions and power of scent, psychology, why being fragrance-obsessed is about more than mindlessly collecting scented liquid (or obsessively smelling all which is smellable), and why more people should indulge in their sense of smell.

"Scent has the power to change our mood and to remind us of our best memories. Most of us know someone, in our friends or family, who suffer from depression. To help them, we contribute 1.5% of sales to #fightdepression."

The Amazing Olfactory System

As someone who is fascinated by both anatomy and psychology (and how it all works), I've discovered and delighted in the fact that the functions of the olfactory system are more complex than most give it credit for. When we have senses that function properly, we take them for granted. I can see, YAY. I can hear, YAY. Those are typically the most valued senses. In the case of olfaction, most aren't using the sense to its full potential, or recognizing its ability; so sure, it's working fine, but it could be working better. While it's true that animals have the ability to detect more odors than humans, it is believed that as centuries have passed — and we began walking on two limbs versus four — evolution has dulled our sense of smell.

Most animals rely almost entirely on their sense of smell to analyze their surroundings, evaluate their safety, and sniff out prey and mates; their anatomy reflects this. Aside from having a larger olfactory bulb, olfactory nerve cells, and a bigger olfactory epithelium, most have an additional olfactory organ — believed to be vestigial in humans — called the vomeronasal organ, which feeds information into the accessory olfactory bulb (a part of the brain that is nonexistent in humans), in turn allowing for greater odor processing. BUT, we humans are capable of training our sense of smell to detect a greater number of odors (the average adult human can detect approximately 10,000 different odors) by frequently practicing the retrieval of aromas from our brain's odor library, in turn improving our sense of smell AND (because olfaction is directly related to gustation) improving our sense of taste. MMMM FOOD.

The process of olfaction explained may sound just as monotonous as any other bodily function explained by your average college physiology professor. Here's a very basic explanation of the process: an odor enters your nose, it dissolves into your mucous membrane, reaches just past that to your olfactory epithelium, travels to the olfactory receptor neurons, which transmits the information to your olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb contains sensory receptors that are actually connected to the part of your brain which send messages directly to the limbic system and neocortex (particularly important here for its involvement of the cerebral cortex), therefore odor information is received and processed immediately. That's a big deal, you guys. Most senses, when engaged, have to send information in little neuron automobiles on a journey via your spinal cord, to get the information to your brain for processing. The inner portion of our nostrils are the only part of our bodies where the central nervous system is exposed directly to the environment.

So, before I continue, recall the bit where I said that olfaction directly correlates with important brain functions via the limbic system and cerebral cortex. Now it's important that I remind you what the functions of these structures involve. The limbic system houses an array of structures whose primary jobs involve a responsibility for the emotional aspect of our lives, as well as higher mental functions; such as learning and the formation of memories. The cerebral cortex is the most important part of the brain (especially from a psychological standpoint), and it affects our thoughts and actions. In case you're not yet seeing how this is relevant, remember that our olfactory bulb has a direct relationship with these brain structures. Smell affects some of the most important functions of our brain! With such strong connectivity to some of the most influential parts of our psyche, at what point can we begin to consider the level of intensity for which scent can affect our whole being?

Olfaction & Emotion; A Serious Relationship

None of what I've told you is particularly groundbreaking; it's simply overlooked and under appreciated. I'm not a scientist, and there's plenty of studies about how scent affects x, y, & z. However, the average person doesn't delve into the sense of smell any deeper than, "that smells good" or "this smells bad." The truly amazing aspects of the sense of smell are all things that typically go unacknowledged or are taken for granted, and in fact, like most things involving the human body, the full capabilities of the olfactory system are not fully understood. Many of these functions are believed to be so innate and automatic that we don't even consciously recognize that we're using them. For the purpose of keeping this article relevant, I'm focusing specifically on some of the functions of smell which have the greatest impact on us from a psychological aspect.

In 2000, Rachel Herz conducted a study which tested the accuracy and emotionality of memory recall when an object was presented to a specific sense. Accuracy was measured by the level of detail and precision with which the event was remembered, and emotionality was measured by depth of emotion recalled from the event which it accompanied. The study proved that smell was not any more useful than the other senses in aiding memory recall. Scent was found to be just as effective in the evocation of memory as seeing, hearing, or touching an object presented with the intention of aiding in memory recollection. However, while each sense was equally successful in helping pull old memories from our internal databases, the memories which were recalled via olfaction surpassed the ability of the other senses from an emotionality standpoint. Smelling a specific scent which is related to an old (and possibly forgotten) memory can open a flood gate of emotions which can potentially feel as organic as they did when they occurred for the first time. That's powerful.

The olfactory processes are situated so anatomically close to the brain structures which control the characteristics of our psyche that we most value; memories, thoughts, & emotions. So when an odor accompanies a notable event or person, our brain has the ability to attach that odor to that specific event or person and remain silently stored in our brains memory database, ready to be recalled at the very moment you catch a whiff of the same aroma that you smelt when the experience occurred. When I smell laundry wafting from strangers dryer vents while walking down the street, I'm instantly reminded of riding my bike on a summer day in the small town I grew up in, catching the scent of fabric softener wafting from dryer vents of neighborhood houses. For a long time, the scent of chicken noodle soup repulsed me because my dad made a bowl while I was sick and nauseous on the couch. Scent recall is different for each person, which makes it that much more special. Something that simply smells "nice" to me, may trigger an entire reenactment of a childhood memory for you.

Furthermore, studies have proven that scent can affect us positively or negatively on a subconscious level. If presented with an odor — which did not previously conjure up any negative or positive response — during a negative, anxiety-inducing, or disturbing situation, that same odor presented in a stress-free situation can replicate the negative feelings that you felt in the anxiety-inducing situation for which the odor was initially presented. So, if there is a scent that you identify as calming, uplifting, or cheerful, you have the ability to carry that with you via some form of aromatic elixir to induce positive and happy feelings in a stressful situation (ie. wearing lavender oil while taking a difficult exam). Conversely, an unpleasant odor does not necessarily induce negative reactions. Studies have shown that when presented with a pleasant image, and then presented with an odor (whether pleasant or unpleasant), test subjects were more likely to identify the odor as positive. For instance, many people find the smell of cow manure to be disgusting, but I am reminded of quiet country roads, blue skies, and the simplicity of childhood. What I'm getting at is that scent can be a compelling tool which we can learn to use in our favor.

But still, why such an infatuation with perfume?

Often times, fragrance collecting is seen as a shallow hobby without any substantial value. However, part of the excitement and thrill of this infatuation with scent is in having the opportunity to express why olfaction is something to be emphatic about. Of course it smells good and makes you feel a little luxurious, but it's more that that. In studying and practicing scent (in a very unscientific way, by simply smelling), specifically through the use and enjoyment of perfume, I am able to create my own imagery and positive connotations for each fragrance. Each day I am able to choose a fragrance which evokes a specific feeling or emotion that I've created for it. How do I want to feel today? Which fragrance creates a story to achieve that feeling? We're talking about more than wanting to feel sexy for the purpose of attracting a mate. We're talking about the ability to feel powerful, confident, happy, calm, charming, mysterious, romantic, unique, and yes, attractive; an olfactive affirmation. And when we feel these kinds of things about ourselves, we take a tiny stab at hopelessness, self-criticism, insecurity, shame, depression, and anxiety.

Psychologically speaking, scent can play an important role in positively changing tasks that we find to be mentally distressing. As touched on a few paragraphs up, our brains are extremely sensitive to cues which trigger specific behaviors/emotions; whether that behavior is a response to cues learned consciously or unconsciously is irrelevant. The point is that — with scent — the possibility of creating positive cues for our brains in situations of distress is something that could be realistically attainable. For those who have personally suffered from depression or anxiety, you know that regaining the feeling of some emotional or mental normalcy during a particularly distressing time can be crucial. Aside from the possibility of training ourselves to correlate scents with positive feelings, many odors which we link to specific memories are able to be recreated and bottled. As a result, we can have these aromas at our disposal for sniffing when we want to remember the way we felt during a joyful moment, ultimately providing a source of comfort. In this way, scent can serve as a time capsule to happier times, resulting in the possibility of more hopeful feelings.

My fragrance journey didn't consciously start with all of this in mind, the more time I've spent collecting and practicing scent, the more I've learned and recognized how fascinating and mood-altering it is. As someone who has personally dealt with mental illness for nearly three decades, fragrance has become a daily, ritualistic experience that I am able to rely upon for glimmers of joy when everything else about the day ahead seems bleak and daunting. Scent certainly isn't the cure for all of our problems, but it is an accessible tool which we can use to our advantage. We can let the big ol' brain scientists work on a brain things, and we can fight mental illness on a smaller scale by happily dousing ourselves with confidence-building elixirs, spritzed from gorgeous little bottles. Kudos to you again, Scent Trunk, for loving our brains. You rock.

Image from:

Sources: herehereherehere, & here

*I stand to gain nothing from this article other than the joy of spreading the wonders of scent. This article does not include affiliate links, and I was not asked to write it. I hope this inspires you to spray your way to happiness.


  1. Beautifully written and right up my alley. Keep it up, Krista!

    1. Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed reading, thanks for the encouragement:).