Because of the way our brains are wired, smell directly interacts with our feelings. We all know how a scent can suddenly take us on a trip down memory lane. Why not use it to our benefit? Research has shown that smell influences our sense of self, memories, emotions, mood, how we experience the world around us and even executive functions like planning and analytic thinking. And that is just the conscious part...
The receptors in our nose have immediate access to a part of our brain where our emotions and memories are processed. Of all the senses smell might be the most subconscious in influencing us as it touches our emotions the most directly. The supermarket makes good use of this fact by blowing the smell of freshly baked bread through the store, hereby creating a pleasant atmosphere which urges us to buy more products. However, we can also consciously use scent to increase our well-being!
“Embrace good smells. No cost, no calories, no energy, no time - a quick hit of pleasure“.
Good news for the smokers and bingers amongst us: Sniffing a pleasant smell when you feel the urge to smoke (or to binge on food) significantly reduces the craving. The pleasant smell cue of your choosing should of course not be one of food, as that would defeat the purpose😊 *1
There is a constant subconscious “grapevine”/ ‘chatter between human sweat glands in the form of little chemical particles, that just like in bees, steers our ‘hive’ behaviour. This phenomenon is known as chemo signalling: The communication of our body odours. Characteristics, genetic fit, health status, feelings…we can smell them and we can even transfer the latter to others…! We seem to be able to detect personality characteristics such as extraversion, neuroticism, and dominance in a person’s body odor.*2
Body odor informs us about nutrition status, physical fitness*3, kinship or whether your date qualifies genetically as a good fit for a mate. We are mentalists without knowing it as we are able to detect feelings like fear, disgust and happiness in others! But even more interestingly we transfer these feelings to others through smell! So surround yourself with positive people as mood is actually contagious! Spread the love, have positive thoughts and ooze that happiness!!*4
The saying: “Stop and smell the flowers”, has a bit of a negative connotation, but it literally means: Acknowledge what is here, in the now. Taking the time to smell the flowers, smelling the fresh rain, the flowers you pass, your kids hair, paying attention to (the smell of) your food & drinks, basically the world around you, brings you more in the moment. Mindful awareness of the moment, without judging what is there, helps to disengage from cognitive ruminations or negative thoughts about the self, present and to feel joyful and even helps you stay healthy and young.*5
There is a hypotheses that the experience of smell also depends on personal make up, just like medicines that do not work in a percentage of people (sometimes in over more than 30% of people!). Because people have different receptors and their body reacts differently, the experience differs. Smell Bias: Besides that all senses are actually biased as they are processed by our brain. Our brain has formed through our experiences, which form the glasses with which we perceive the world around us, including its smells. To keep everyone in the house happy, choose smells that you all “dig”😊
We choose our partners, lovers, and friends through subliminal smells called pheromones as everyone's body odor has a unique “smellprint”. These tiny airborne chemicals that we involuntarily shed from our skin glands and expel into the air, affect the physiology or behaviour of the humans around us. Without knowing it our brains are communicating via our pheromones which are telling us what to feel, think and do! Studies have found that smelling male axillary extracts can lift women’s mood *6. Non-binary studies have not yet been performed unfortunately. Doctor’s prescription😉: Smell your partners armpit for a better mood?
Believers, Non-Believers? The concept of aromatherapy is ancient and already existed in the form of incense by the Chinese, embalming their dead by the Egyptians and in baths by the Romans. It turns out that it mostly has an associative effect: If you find the smell of lavender pleasant and in your brain you link it to relaxation, it will have a relaxing effect on you. If you believe that the smell of eucalyptus has a stimulating effect it’s smell will make your heart beat faster! It’s a bit like when you switch the colours of Coke and Fanta. If your drink an orange Coke, your brain will tell you that you drink Fanta..You see and in this case smell what you believe. So become a believer: If you like the smell and believe in its properties, you will experience the properties.*7
Certain smells can actually give you a warm and cosy feeling or a refreshing and exciting feeling. This is called the Trigeminus effect…No not as mind blowing as the butterfly effect perhaps but still pretty cool. The Trigeminus nerve is responsible for sensory perception of the face. Certain chemicals that we perceive as smell have an amplifying effect on this nerve. For instance the smell of cinnamon gives a warming sensation and peppermint a cooling sensation. Which explains why we spike our food and drinks with cinnamon in winter and why chewing gum provides this “fresh, aaaaaaaghhh” feeling. In those dark wintery evenings use cinnamon to give you a glowy warm feeling or if you catch yourself nodding due to Zoom fatigue, take a mint!
Side note: Whether you rate a smell as “hot or cold” in not always universal and could be the result of your cultural beliefs. *8
A pleasant smell stirs up positive emotions (unless this specific smell is linked to a negative experience for you). So surround yourself with smells that stir up happy feelings: Invest in a pleasant smell in your home, through fresh flowers, fragrance sticks, home spray (I personally love using the natural Lush sprays for this purpose, no commerfcial links there;), use body lotions and deodorants you love and of course there is nothing like the fresh outdoors smell in drying clothes or an aired out duvet!
Making smelling an pleasant expirience thoughout your day. As someone once told me: "When I take a walk with my dog he reads his smell newspaper". Smell is a world in itself to animals. As we are also animals, being more aware of smell very well might enrich your life!
Image by Alexander Daoud from Pexels
Laura Hoekstra is a health educator focusing on the intersections of food, health and climate. With her background in Natural Medicine Laura looks at health (people and planet) through a holistic lens. She is a Certified Nutritionist and Naturopath and an advocate for Integrative, Personalized Medicine.