The Science of Scent

One of the strongest memories I can recall is the delicate scent of my newborn baby – 42.5 years ago. I’m trusting that many of you will recall a similar sensory reaction when you held your babies. That mixture of just washed soft newborn baby, sweet milk, and Johnson’s powder seems to mix into a scent that lingers a lifetime.

Years ago I walked the streets of Vicenza, Italy for the first time. It was winter and the fog hung thick enough to slice. Damp air was scented with wet wool, diesel fuel, and sodden stonewalls. Passing a trattoria, the fragrances of garlic and olive oil, cigarette smoke and wine clung to the fog. Further on as I neared my apartment building, the familiar smoke of charcoal burning in tiny grills situated on numerous tiny balconies assured me that my trek was nearing an end. When I returned home to the US from my overseas adventures, I was struck by the smell of salt marshes at low tide and thawing earth in the early spring air.

Who doesn’t love the smell of the holidays in warm kitchens or a loved one’s familiar aftershave? Simply put, our olfactory senses deliver powerful forces that sear our brains with memories we can nearly taste. Science has investigated the relationship between smell and memory, so my revelations are nothing new. Yet I find the subject matter interesting and confess to my own high-functioning sense of smell. Exploring the topic a bit deeper, I share the following with you.

The wine industry has grown into one that teaches lay people how to grade the liquid by smelling it. Every wine tour includes the mandatory sniff test so that one’s sense of smell versus taste may suck in the gentle notes of apple and honeysuckle blended with a finishing note of spring air. Something about wine, which I think speaks much more to marketing the product and making people ‘feel’ sophisticated rather than tasting the wine itself and enjoying the flavor, evokes emotion in us mere mortals. Oh yes, beverage of the gods indeed. (Ripple, how I miss your soapy fragrance and Kool-Aid after notes.) I drank my share of wine while living in Italy, and it all tasted good to me. I wasn’t smelling it. I was drinking it. No sommelier I.

After years of crossbreeding roses to produce commercial resplendence, growers finally understand that smell is equally as important. Today, scientists are trying to figure out how to put the smell of roses back into roses. I’ve noticed that even rose bushes found in backyards have been so hybridized that the blossoms have little or no fragrance whatsoever. Now that is a sin. Is a rose absent its fragrance still a rose? Me thinks that a rose with no rosy smell is beauty skin deep. The industrial bouquets we receive on special occasions may look the part; however, something critical is missing. The humble tomato is part of the rose family, believe it or not, and it too has been negatively impacted by industrial production. Hence, along with the rose, scientists are trying to make the tomato smell and taste like the ones we grew up with. Given a choice, I’d take a tasty tomato over a sweet smelling rose any day, but no doubt corporations will decide which we’ll get to enjoy and when. Do I smell the scent of money?

Yes, of course I do. Retailers have used scent-marketing techniques successfully for years. Along with helping you forget the time and shepherding you through a maze of merchandise displays with mood lighting and open-your-wallet music, they have infused the atmosphere with delicates scents to calm you. No, not the low-priced retailers who will go unnamed, no, no I’m talking about the high-end retailers, the retailers who have studied just how to make the well healed part with their cash. From the web site we learn, “Scent-marketing is the latest trick to stand out from the visual and auditory barrage that dominates advertising. These scents, however, are a far cry from the strong smells of incense and patchouli at the bead store. They’re subtle and almost imperceptible to the unwitting sniffer. Developers use carefully tuned scents to lure customers into a sense of well-being. Stores that sell shoes or shirts, items ideally not associated with odor, formulate aromas of ivy or crisp linen. Some companies even strive to develop a “brand scent,” something that customers will associate with the company as much as a logo.” So the next time you spend two-hundred dollars on a pair of jeans for your 13-year-old daughter, you can blame your nose and not her whining persistence. Well, maybe that too.

Trying to sell your home? The next time the realtor sets up an open house make sure you bake cookies, cakes or pies and leave the cooling goodies on the kitchen counter. The smell will help transport the prospects into a sense of wellbeing leading them to believe “I’m home!” Heck if Nordstrom’s can do it, why can’t you? Oh yeah, and don’t forget the lavender potpourri for the bathrooms.

Of course we all know that the smell of food is very evocative and that smell works with taste, thus granting humans the ability to know the difference between something that might kill us and that which will nourish our bodies. But what about finding a mate?

Yes, smell is even involved when we are busy flirting or falling in love. We apparently have to be attracted to a potential mate not only visually and emotionally, but aromatically as well. Professor Randy Thornhill, evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico writes: “Physical attraction itself may literally be based on smell. We discount the importance of scent-centric communication only because it operates on such a subtle level. This is not something that jumps out at you, like smelling a good steak cooking on the grill. But the scent capability is there, and it’s not surprising to find smell capacity in the context of sexual behavior. As a result, we may find ourselves drawn to the counter attendant at the local drugstore, but have no idea why—or, conversely, find ourselves put off by potential dating partners even though they seem perfect on paper.” You can thank your brain’s limbic system, amygdala and hippocampus for causing you to say, “I do”.

If spring ever comes our way, we’ll know for sure it has when the skunks tell us. That notorious smell will waft through your open bedroom window as Pepé Le Pew passes by. Or maybe as you drive along innocently sucking in the cool clean air from your open car window suddenly, WHAM, you get hit in the face with that unmistakable smell of recent skunk road kill. O spring, wherefore art thou? It will also bring the smell of new mulch, fragrant hyacinth, and if I’m lucky, fresh paint in my kitchen. Guess I better start using that perfume my husband gave me for Christmas two years ago. It may take awhile for it to kick into his brain. His sense of smell is not as good as mine. I’m trusting that perhaps with science on my side, he’ll get busy by April. Forget the honey-do list, my money is on the mixture of vanilla and musk.

By Marilou Newell


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