Aromatherapy science: discover the science of scent

Fragrances have the power to unlock memories and influence our tastes and emotions. Sarah Gane delves deeper…

Aromatherapy science

Close your eyes, take a deep inhale through your nose. Allow a few moments for your mind to process the smells in your surroundings. While this is a conscious act, so much of what we smell day to day isn’t given a second thought. Yet, this sense is important; it’s a bit like a superpower, piecing together a picture – our own unique version – of our surroundings. “Our sense of smell is said to be 10,000 times more sensitive than any of our other senses,” says Rosie Frost, complementary therapist and aromatherapist from Touch For Life. “Other senses, such as touch and taste, must travel through the body via neurons and the spinal cord before reaching the brain. Our sense of smell is linked via olfactory bulbs to the primitive part of our brain called the limbic system responsible for emotions, memory and behaviour.”

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Consider the first time you step out on to the beach, walk in the woods or climb into a bed with fresh sheets, your sense of smell can help you to feel relaxed and content. “Smell plays a huge role in how we connect with the world around us and to the people we share it with,” confirms Duncan Boak, founder and chair of The Fifth Sense, a charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders.

“It has this profound connection with our memories and emotions. I’m sure many people can recall an instance when a smell has evoked a memory and transported them back in time, bringing a rush of emotion with it.”

While we know animals rely on this sense to survive, humans need it more than we might think, as Rosie explains: “We bond and are attracted to mates by pheromones, the unique body scents we all have. Expectant mothers become very sensitive to scents which can be part of the nausea experienced in pregnancy. Pheromones begin their mother-infant connection before the baby is even born. They are very important for bonding and attachment, which has been shown to affect future health, wellbeing and ability to have lasting relationships.”

This early human experience can also influence taste. Vanilla, for example, is said to be similar to breast milk, but why we like or dislike a smell can often be dictated by our previous experiences as well as the olfactory receptors in our nose, as cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Rachel Herz explains: “Every single person, unless you are an identical twin, is different. To some extent our genetic predisposition may modulate our basic attraction to something but apart from that it’s actually all learned. It’s learned through experience, through personal interaction and through culture.”

An example of this is the smell of wintergreen mint: “I am sure in the UK you find it unpleasant because it is connected to toilet cleaning products and medicine,” says Dr Herz. “In the US, wintergreen mint is always paired with sweetness, because it is only experienced in candy, mints and gum. So, in the US it is something you put in your mouth and in the UK it definitely isn’t! The thing is, there’s nothing inherent about the smell of wintergreen per se that is good or bad, it’s because of what it’s connected to and what its meaning is.”

Beyond what we put in our bodies, though, actively scenting our bodies with beauty products such as perfume enable us to customise how we smell to others as well as ourselves. “For me, wearing perfume is instinctive and vital. Perfume enhances or alters my mood. It feels like an olfactory accessory for whatever I’m wearing,” says Jessica Murphy, aka Perfume Professor, a museum professional with a background in art history and a passion for fragrance writing. “It provides a comforting, familiar ritual and sometimes takes me to other places in my imagination.”

This idea of ritual and the power of scent have been used throughout history, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. “The first perfumes were oils with botanical and animal essences, and they were very rare and costly,” explains Jessica. “Over the centuries, especially in the 1800s, they became more widespread and more affordable. Today, personal fragrances are available at every possible price point.”

While the accessibility of perfume has increased over time, so too has the types of smell on offer. “The division of personal fragrance into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ categories is a recent invention,” Jessica explains. “Fragrances were all gender-neutral until the mid-1800s. Until then women wore strong musks, men wore violet scents; it was all just a matter of style and taste.”

Signature scents were also created for customers in the early 1900s. Perfume psychologist Ann Haviland offered to blend unique fragrances for her customers that really represented their personalities. “She was a pioneer in several ways,” explains Jessica. “From being an American woman in the field to creating custom scents influenced by her study of psychology.” While most of us now opt for an off-the-shelf fragrance, the one we choose is still important and helps to define who we are.

Aromatherapy science
Unsplash/Janine Joles

Fragrance is also used in film to help flesh a character out. A good example is Clinique Happy, used in the opening scenes of Legally Blonde as the camera pans across a dressing table while Elle gets ready, it is also woven into the script of Juno when the eponymous character (played by Elliot Page) borrows a squirt of Vanessa’s (played by Jennifer Garner) perfume while she uses the bathroom. Both characters are positive people with a sunny disposition, which is an ideal match for this scent.

This additional sensory information about our favourite characters or even real-life celebrities is no doubt why their endorsement of existing or own-branded fragrances is eagerly received by their fans. It helps us to fully imagine a person we’re very unlikely to be able to meet. Marilyn Monroe was famously quoted as saying all she wore to bed was Chanel No 5. Whether you’re familiar with the perfume or not, the mere association with Monroe creates connotations of a classy, timeless classic glamour that exudes sexiness. Speaking of which, Christina Henricks (Mad Men’s redhead, Joan) revealed in an interview with Marie Claire US that she too loved perfume: “I have ten L’Artisan Parfumeur smells. Right now I’m super into the amber, but they also had a mandarin that’s absolutely amazing. I bought it when I did the pilot for Mad Men, so every time I spray it on, it reminds me of how excited I was to start the show.”

Memory recall with scent doesn’t happen all the time, though, as Dr Herz explains: “When there are scents we encounter all the time – let’s say the smell of coffee – it’s unlikely that that is going to bring back a really distinct personal memory because we encounter that smell in so many different places and in so many different ways that the experience and the associations get written over. For it to bring back a really personal memory, the odour is typically something that’s a lot more specific and something that you only encounter rarely or in certain circumstances – these kind of scents are most likely to be a trigger for a Proustian memory and unlock something from your past for you.” Having said that, the power of scent is not limited to our own daily lives, as Duncan tells us: “I’m increasingly seeing smell being used as a means of engaging people. Theatre performances that incorporate an olfactory element, for example.

“There are other ways in which smell can be used as a tool to help people, such as the fantastic work done by Lizzie Ostrom in developing the Ode.” Lizzie Ostrom’s olfactory adventures have provided a new dimension to gallery visits and cinematic screenings for years. Her work on Ode, with Rodd Design, has helped to support people living with dementia. The device produces food fragrances ahead of mealtimes to help trigger appetites. During 11 weeks of testing, over half of the participants gained much-needed weight. Whether you’re using it for therapy or enjoyment, scent has huge potential to improve our everyday lives, simply by enabling us to really take in our surroundings.

Perhaps it’s remembering to get a good whiff of fresh basil before you add it to a dish or, quite literally, stopping to smell the roses. Leaving room for moments of conscious interaction with the world can’t help but promote a more mindful way of living.

Want to learn more about aromatherapy science and how it can improve our wellbeing? Discover the benefits of aromatherapy with our handy guide.

If you want to bring aromatherapy into your life, have a go at making aromatherapy sleep oil or learn how to make soap at home.

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About Project Calm Magazine

This article was first published in Project Calm Magazine issue 8. Unfortunately Project Calm is no longer available in print, but many Project Calm back issues are available on Readly.