We all have scents that can transport us to another time and place. Maybe the smell of fresh linen and pressed lavender take you back to summer afternoons at grandma’s house. Maybe coriander, turmeric, and cumin remind you of an auntie who loved to cook. And maybe vanilla and jasmine evoke the perfume of someone you once loved, but rarely think about unless confronted by the scent.
Countless studies have shown that scents impact not only our memory, but our mood as well. Scents can make us happy, wistful, nervous, relaxed, nostalgic, even fearful. It turns out that our emotional reactions to a scent are deeply tied to the context and associations surrounding our exposure to that scent. Keep reading to learn about the fascinating neuroscience linking scent and mood.
It’s All in Your Head
We’ve probably all read a poem or passage where the smell of a flower reminds a character, sadly, of a love long since lost. As it turns out though, the association between scent and mood isn’t just an artistic convention; it’s also heavily rooted in neuroscience.
Our olfactory receptors, which is what we smell with, are directly connected to our limbic systems, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, which is thought to be the part of the brain that houses our emotions. Specifically, the amygdala is thought to process emotion, and the hippocampus is thought to regulate associative learning, but more on that later. When we take a sniff of something, the smell is relayed to our cortexes, where recognition occurs only after our limbic system has been stimulated. Therefore, by the time we recognize and name a particular scent, a deep-seated emotional response has already been activated.
But how did these deep-seated emotions get to our brains in the first place? The short answer is association. Our olfactory receptors are not only linked to the part of the brain that processes emotion, but also to the part that is wired for associative learning (the hippocampus). Associative learning is the process by which an event or experience becomes linked to another because of an individual’s past.
This means that when we smell something, that scent becomes intrinsically tied to the emotion we are feeling during the initially cataloged memory, and the smell can continue to elicit that same emotion years or even decades later. So, for instance, if you feel warm, safe, and happy when baking cookies with your mom, you will likely feel warm, safe, and happy every time you smell the combination of vanilla, butter, and chocolate. No other sensory system has this type of intimate link with the neural areas of emotion and associative learning, meaning there is a strong neurological basis for why odors trigger emotions. More than any other sense, scent is magic!
The Scent Makes the Mood
Given the connection between association, emotion, and scent, it’s hardly surprising that scent preferences are highly subjective and highly personal. In fact, universally and across cultures, it’s impossible to find scents that are unanimously enjoyed or disliked. In one survey, for example, where people were asked to list their favorite odors, many included scents generally regarded as unpleasant, such as gasoline and sweat, while other scents usually perceived as pleasant, such as flowers, were disliked by certain respondents.
Unfailingly, these preferences were explained by good and bad experiences associated with particular scents. One respondent who listed “gasoline,” mentioned that her grandfather, whom she had loved dearly, was a mechanic. Another, who disliked the scent of certain flowers, explained that the scent recalled the woods where she would hide as a child to get away from her parents’ arguments. In both instances, the respondents had been “taught” how to feel about a smell through their associative learning processes.
The Nose Knows (Except When it Doesn’t)
The mood-boosting effects of scents are well known to people who use aromatherapy to unwind and relax, or to treat symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. A growing body of literature shows that a positive mood is linked to an increase in productivity, and a tendency to help others, while a negative mood reduces altruistic behavior. This means that aromatherapy not only helps the individual using it, but may also help others in that person’s vicinity.
There’s also a less rosy side to this connection between scent and mood. Using scents to foster positive perceptions and emotions, can, it turns out, cloud our judgment. In an experiment in a Las Vegas casino, the amount of money gambled in a slot machine increased by over 45% when the site was odorized with a pleasant aroma.
In a similar study – a consumer test of shampoos – a shampoo that participants ranked last on general performance in an initial test, was ranked first in a second test after its fragrance had been altered. In the second test, participants said that the shampoo was easier to rinse out, had better lather, and left hair glossier. Only the fragrance had been changed. While it’s not a problem per se that smell impacts our impressions, our sense of smell can sometimes mislead us into viewing things favorably or unfavorably based on little else besides odor.
Here at Jereomeo, we’re big fans of the science of scent! And we’re also big fans of Pureomeo essential oils! No matter what scents make you happiest, all of our oils are highly concentrated, and have rich, deep, and stimulating aromas.
PureomEO™ sources the highest-quality ingredients from eco-friendly and small-scale farms, distilleries, and producers. All of our products contain only all-natural, plant-based ingredients with no animal products, preservatives, or synthetics. Every batch of PureomEO™ Essential Oil is lab tested and analyzed for quality assurance.