So you’re in a nice candle shop and you get that “Island Sea Breeze.” As you close your eyes and take a whiff, you imagine yourself in a paradise, waves caressing the sandy shore. You feel the heat but you are refreshed by the calm winds and the umbrella drink in your hand. But as soon as that inhalation is over you are back to reality. Ever wonder why smells bring out emotions and memories? Now that there is an understanding of the relationship between scent and emotion, we simply cannot just deny it. A new smell is usually tied to a person, object moment or an event. Once that link is embedded in the brain, it is easily triggered when something similar is reintroduced.
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us
Chemical cues in the environment (odor-ants) guide behaviors critical for survival, such as mother-infant interactions, finding food and avoiding predators. “A pleasant scent can signal powerful memories that bring us back to a great experience - while a disagreeable odor can be offensive.” Regarding to a number of studies the odors people like make them feel good, whereas odors people dislike make them feel bad. Heart-rate and eye-blink rates and skin conductance, in response to scents coincide with the mood the person is experiencing.
Odors do affect people’s work performance and mood, but it isn’t because odors work on us like a medicine, instead we work on them through our experiences with them. In fact, there is a direct correlation between scents and emotions, all driven by cognitive forces. Olfaction is a chemical sense that has relationships with emotion, and there is a neurophysiologic interaction between the systems of olfaction, emotion and memory. Odors, composed of monomolecular components, are analyzed by peripheral receptors into component features and translated into spatiotemporal patterns of neural activity in the olfactory bulb.
But whether or not the sense of smell in human interacts with social and sexual communication…
I am going to talk about this topic in the next coming weeks.
In our conversations this past week Pooneh and I discussed the theme of smell in relationships and co-sleeping. I spent some time this week researching the topics - looking at it from different points of view like some existing artistic works, scientific research and advertising.
Smells, relationships and perfume
Thinking about the theme of smell and relationships, I instinctively think that smell is an overlooked sense (pun somewhat intended). But a second of reflection reminds me that smell is a huge industry, in fact it is a carefully thought-out and segmented industry. Make your home smell nice (hide the bad smells), add new smells and make your home smell like something that isn’t a home; make your body smell nice, use deodorant (hide the natural bad smells); add new smells and make yourself sexually attractive, give yourself a new identity.
The preference to hide bad smells and of smelling nice may seem obvious now, but some of our preferences may be entirely constructed habits encouraged by companies who want to sell us some new smell-irizer. Read this neat Wired article about how millions eventually became convinced that we need air freshners in our homes.
I’ve always found perfume ads particularly vacuous: selling something you can’t see is not actually uncommon, but perfume sellers seem to really struggle when making ads. Generally, these ads equate colognes/perfumes with providing (much needed?) boost to sexual attraction.
On a more disturbing note, women’s perfume ads have become not only intensely sexual and objectifying but also often have undertones (or even overt tones) of submission and coercion. See the article The highly sexual art of selling perfume on Daily Life.
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Pooneh Heshmati is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist, physician, and post doctoral researcher at Northwell Health in New York.
Joana Ricou is an award-winning NYC-based artist, and creative director of Regenerative Medicine Partnership for Life.