Have you ever encountered a fragrance and instantly found yourself transported to another time? Maybe the sweet smell of lavender makes you think of balmy summer evenings growing up in your family garden. Or memories of Christmases past when you get a whiff of cinnamon.
There’s a reason why fragrance is so moving. Aside from producing gorgeous scents, fragrance has the power to change our moods and evoke certain emotions. But how does it all work? What’s going on inside our minds when we smell fragrance?
Understanding how we smell
When we smell something, our noses and brains are working together to make sense of what is going on. Breathing in through our nose exposes us to tiny particles found floating in the air. We can generally smell these particles without trying or consciously thinking about them. When we then sniff the air, we are blasting these molecules to the roof of our nostrils, making the smell even more pertinent than it was before.
Interestingly enough, the fact that we have two nostrils plays a very important role in the overall smelling process. Our brain is able to detect subtle differences in the molecules that reach each nostril, thus making a more informed decision about a smell. The next time you’re trying to source where a smell is coming from, try closing one of your nostrils. It’s very hard to detect certain scents when you’re only using one of your nostrils!
Understanding smell and memory
Smell and memory are intrinsically linked due to the natural anatomy of the brain. When we smell a certain fragrance, our olfactory bulb is engaged. This is the structure in front of the brain that sends information to other parts of the body for processing. This eventually reaches our limbic system, regions responsible for emotion and memory.
Our olfactory senses are tuned into what our body needs. Unlike our other senses, our olfactory nerves bypass the brain’s thalamus and instead go to cortical areas which directly affect how we feel - even without realising it. That’s why certain smells can trigger certain emotions and memories. Good and bad.
The parts of the brain involved with smelling a fragrance are also responsible for storing old memories. This explains the instant flashback you get when you unexpectedly encounter a new smell.
Adults have the ability to remember vivid details they may have otherwise forgotten through smell. This could be the scent of their grandparent's house or the way their primary school classroom smelt back when they were at school. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
Equally, these smells can trigger various emotions. The smell of flowers may help you feel relaxed and at ease, whereas the smell of smoke may make you feel concerned and stifled. Smell is one of the most powerful senses we have, so it’s important to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with fragrances that bolster your mood.
Understanding how we smell fragrance
While the majority of people have the ability to smell fragrance without much effort, there are certain things you can do to enhance the way you detect certain smells. Once you commit to the journey of scents and fragrances, your moods, emotions and memories are enhanced forever.