How we can use our sense of smell to improve our wellbeing with aromatherapy and perfume

Do you ever find that a smell can evoke powerful memories? We're still learning about the science behind our sense of smell and why it has such a strong link to our memories. We spoke to Suzy Nightingale of The Perfume Society to find out more about the benefits of aromatherapy.

Hand holding a bunch of lavender

Although our sense of smell is one of our five senses, it hasn’t been as widely researched as sight and hearing – according to Suzy Nightingale.


Perfume expert Suzy has long been fascinated by our sense of smell and how it can influence our emotions. She regularly runs workshops to teach people to develop their sense of smell as part of her work for the Perfume Society.

Aromatherapy face mask

“I think we’re still discovering how important it is to us, because it’s been so overlooked for centuries really, which is crazy because it’s one of our main senses,” she says.

“For example, scientists haven’t been able to prove yet how we actually smell – how a smell gets into our nose and is then transferred into our brain.”

“Some people believe theories that molecules are shaped in different ways and we have shaped receptors in our noses. Some people can smell better than others, that might explain that. It hasn’t been proved definitively one way or the other, which is extraordinary when you think about it.”

Woman smelling flowers

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Our sense of smell makes food taste better

Our sense of smell is strongly linked to our sense of taste. When Suzy’s running a scent workshop, she brings along some jellybeans or flavoured chocolate and gets the attendees to hold their nose while eating them. They are then asked to describe what they can taste.

“You sometimes get sweet flavours, if it’s something sour you might just be able to taste that it was slightly sour or salty,” Suzy says.

“But that’s it. You just get the mouthfeel so you can taste whether it’s waxy or crunchy. When you let go of your nose, that flavour floods into your mouth.”

If you’ve got a cold, your sense of taste will be completely dulled. It’s also possible to lose your sense of smell as a result of cancer treatment or an accident – or even to smell ‘phantom’ smells such as burning toast.


You can train your sense of smell

When perfumers are training, they are taught to associate smells with other things. Suzy says that when we’re learning to identify smells, our brains are automatically searching for what it might be.

“You’re thinking: I think that’s lemon, I think that’s rose,” she says. “When you’re learning how a smell is emotionally important to you, you have to disassociate yourself from that technical, logical way of looking at a smell.”

When perfumers smell something for the first time, they think how they would explain it if it were a texture. Would it be velvet? Or suede? Would it be rough or smooth? Crisp linen? Cotton?

“They might also think of it as a colour,” Suzy adds. “Is it a bright yellow? Is it a soft pastel yellow?”

A perfumer might also associate a smell with a particular place or a person that they know.

Woman walking through lavender fields
Unsplash/Richard Ecsedi

We have an emotional connection to certain smells

You might not have thought about this before, but certain smells can trigger strong emotional reactions.

“Some people have a very positive memory come to mind when they smell something, but other people might have the complete opposite reaction,” Suzy says.

It’s often only when people really think about it they realise that they associate a smell with a less pleasant memory. For example, lavender might bring back memories of visiting an aunt who they didn’t get on with when they were a child.

“For the rest of your life, every time you smell something that reminds you of that visit to your aunt’s house you replay it emotionally.”


Our brains react in a unique way to smells that trigger memories

Scientists have been able to show that scents are linked to our memories. When someone smells a fragrance during brain scan different areas of the brain light up and the results are entirely personal.

Suzy says: “Although they don’t know exactly why it’s hitting those parts of the brain, they can prove that those parts of the brain are lighting up for you and those exact parts of the brain wouldn’t light up for anyone else.

“It’s an entirely emotion-based response. Once we understand that, we can explore that at greater length and use it for the rest of our lives – to enhance our lives.”

Sometimes in Suzy’s workshops, people start to cry because a smell triggers a strong emotional response. When that happens, Suzy encourages them to write down their impressions and thoughts to see it reminds them of anything.

Woman carrying flowers
Unsplash/Daiga Ellaby

You can use scents to enhance a memory

Choosing a special scent for your wedding day is very popular. “I think people do want a special memory just for that day,” Suzy says.

“You’re not going to wear an outfit that you wear every day, you’re not going to eat food you eat every day, so why would you want to smell the same way that you do every day?

“Some people do have a wedding scent that they only wear then for very special occasions such as anniversaries, or if they want to cheer themselves up and they want to remember all of those happy feelings.”

But you don’t have to restrict this to your wedding day, you can also use scent to remember other special occasions.


You can bottle a memory

Some perfumers will work with you to create a smell that captures a memory. For example, you could choose scents that make you feel happy on a special occasion, then get a perfumer to make this into a custom scent for you.

“If you have very positive memories associated with lavender or rose oil or a particular fragrance, or even a body lotion. If you focus on it every day and link it with happy memories, so for example the feeling of velvet or sunshine, or a very distinct image, you can learn to tap into those positive memories whenever you want,” Suzy explains.


Using scent can be a mindful exercise

“After our initial workshop, what we ask people to do just for five minutes a day – usually in the morning because that’s when your sense of smell is at its sharpest – is just to sit down and smell something,” she says.

“It doesn’t have to be an essential oil or a fragrance, because not everyone happens to have those to hand all the time. It could be a shampoo or a cooking ingredient. Just smell that and go through the same steps and lock that in your mind with a distinct image or a series of colours and textures.”

Once you’ve got into the habit of doing that, your sense of smell will become sharper.

Suzy Nightingale

Meet Suzy Nightingale at Live Well London

Suzy Nightingale will be running a workshop on how to improve your sense of smell at Live Well London at 12.30 on 3 March 2019.

Live Well London runs from 1-3 March at Old Billingsgate and features everything from wellness talks to yoga and nutritional advice.


Use the code ‘CALM10’ for 10% off all ticket types at the show.