We all have one… an attitude. Good, bad, or indifferent. The question is: is it possible to change our attitude, and our emotions, with scent?
The answer is not a long one, but it starts with a little science, and a story.
Let me set the stage and give you an idea of just how powerful our olfactory system is. Relative to our other senses, our sense of smell wins by far more than a nose! On average, we can hear around 20,000 different frequencies, and we can see and distinguish more than 16 million colors.
But when it comes to the nose and our olfactory system, we can smell over 10 billion different scent ingredients! Yes, that’s right, 10 billion! This is one of the reasons why our sense of smell is the most powerful sense that we possess, combined with the fact that we can remember 35% of the things we smell versus 15% of what we see.
One of the reasons we don’t talk about the sense of smell that often is because those conversations are typically associated with bad smells, not good scents. Another interesting fact about our olfactory system is that once you catch a whiff of something, you don’t smell it again until it goes away and comes back. While the scent may continue to be persistent, our mind turns off the continuous recognition of it – in the scent industry, this is known as “nose blindness”.
Recently, I visited a friend’s house and when I walked through the front door I was overwhelmed by a very strong fragrance. The scent was deep chamomile. It was a positive scent, very warm and relaxing. And yet, my friend did not seem to notice how powerful and intense the scent was. To them, it seemed just fine. I said to my friend, it’s a very nice scent and it’s very powerful. They had an aroma therapy water system that was on constantly. As I settled in, it didn’t bother me that much, and in fact after a few minutes, I didn’t notice it at all. This is “nose blindness.”
The way the olfactory system works is very basic – it’s very primitive. Once the olfactory system tells the brain what something smells like, its job is done, and it will not relay that same information the brain again. As such, the nose and brain become blind to that existing smell until it goes away and then comes back again. The olfactory system’s origin is that of a survival sense – to let us know whether food is edible, whether there is a predator nearby, or a dangerous situation closing in on us, like a fire. Today, our sense of smell continues to alert us to potential trouble… is this food past its expiration date… “whiff”… Yes, it is! We’ve all been there!
And while there are plenty of negatives, or warnings, that are associated with our sense of smell, there’s another side to scents – the positive side. This is where things get very interesting. The science of scent is uncovering and expanding our understanding of how powerful the sense of smell really is, and how it can affect the connection to our emotional experiences.
Knowing how some (bad) smells can clear room in a matter of seconds… we also have scientific insight that there is a strong connection between how we may act, and what emotional accord can be evoked from a particular scent. For example, a fragrance or scent can be wonderfully pleasant and intoxicatingly inviting, triggering an emotional state of bliss and happiness. We’ve all had that great experience of smelling something recently that reminded us of a pleasant time, or place, and virtually transported us there to that moment. Our sense of smell is extremely powerful when it comes to the mind.
Just how is the nose connected to the brain? One part is connected to the olfactory cortex at the front of the brain, which is responsible for identifying the odor. The other part is the limbic system at the center of the brain –this is where the magic happens.
Every time we get a whiff of anything, there is a direct connection to the limbic center where Hypothalamus sits in our brain. The Hypothalamus is a very small region of the brain. It is located at the base of the brain, near the pituitary gland. While it’s very tiny, the hypothalamus performs a key role in many important functions, most notably: releasing hormones, regulating body temperature, maintaining daily physiological cycles, controlling appetite, managing of sexual behavior, and regulating emotional responses.
There are three main regions to the hypothalamus. These three clusters of neurons perform vital functions, one of which is releasing hormones! Wow! Ok, now we’re getting somewhere… the nose is directly connected to the Hypothalamus which produces Hormones which evoke an emotional reaction! Let that sink in. Our nose and our sense of smell is essentially a means to modify our emotions, and moods. I’ll get to mood-mapping scents in a minute.
The front region is area that secrets these various hormones. Many of these hormones interact with the pituitary gland which in turn produce additional hormones.
Two of the related hormones produced in the front region include:
- Corticotropin (CRH). CRH is helps the body respond to both physical and emotional stress. The pituitary gland then produces a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH causes the production of cortisol, an important stress hormone.
- Oxytocin is the hormone controls certain behaviors and emotions, such as sexual arousal, trust, and recognition.
In the Middle Region is the tuberal region. This is the area that controls appetite. Now there is the tuber cinereum, which is also located inside the hypothalamus. Ah the plot thickens…It is directly below the mammillary bodies, which help regulate memory and is the gateway to where memories are stored.
The rear area helps regulate body temperature by causing shivering and blocking sweat production.
We have used the term mood mapping numerous times as we discuss the power and science of scent. Mood mapping is mapping ingredients (usually found/sourced to specific geographic locations) to cultural experiences that cause an emotional reaction based on triggering the release of the desired hormone. So when scent, through the olfactory system triggers the hypothalamus to release a desired hormone, then “voila” –an emotional reaction is achieved!
Does that mean with the right ingredient we can change a mood? The scent creators of our world understand this and capitalize on the over 10 billion ingredients that the nose can sense. And next time you are feeling happy or sad take a deep whiff and recognize what you smell, it could change your attitude.