Jo Fairley, co-founder of The Perfume Society, looks at how research is confirming the power of scent to transform our mood and mindset
Some people talk about having a ‘wardrobe of fragrances’ – something that feels right with jeans, or a little black dress, or a crisp white shirt. Personally, I prefer to think of my fragrances as a ‘toolkit’: a collection of smells and aromas that act honestly on my mood and emotions – something to reach for and ground me when the world feels uncertain or turbulent (which is a lot of the time, right now). Another to lift the spirits, when days are short and I feel the fug of gloom, or to energise me when the second cup of English breakfast tea doesn’t quite work its magic. And something else to slow a racing mind, bringing an all-important reconnection with my body, when I’ve been living in my head.
Most of us instinctively understand the power of scent to shift our mood or our state of mind. But only now is science starting to catch up with what we know in our hearts. According to Mood Media, which provides in-store music, on-hold messaging and scent for commercial environments such as shops and hotels, ‘Seventy-five per cent of emotions generated every day are due to smell.’ To which I’d reply, ‘What, only 75 per cent?’
The phrase ‘aromachology’, a combination of ‘aroma’ and ‘physiopsychology’, was coined as long ago as 1989. It was originally born out of a gloriously named US-based organisation called The Sense of Smell Institute, which was previously known as The Olfactory Research Fund, a study arm set up by the US branch of The Fragrance Foundation. It went well beyond the art of aromatherapy – the use of essential oils in skincare, bodycare and for massage treatments – to look at the interplay between scent and psychology.
At the time, much of this work was carried out at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, subjecting hundreds of volunteers to some of the sweetest (and also the most unpleasant) odours on Planet Earth, in a quest to put a finger on just how smells affect human behaviour and feelings. For whatever reason, interest in this area of science fizzled out after a few years, but today it is once again being taken seriously, which is perhaps a reflection of the fact that many of us are taking a much deeper interest in wellness, with scent and aroma becoming a key (and hugely enjoyable) part of our self-care rituals.
How is it, though, that what we smell can have such an impact on how we feel? It’s all down to our olfactory bulb, which runs from the nose to the base of the brain. When we smell something – a whiff of patchouli, a waft of labdanum, a sweet hit of jasmine – it sends signals straight into the part of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotion (the amygdala and hippocampus, in anatomy-speak). It’s why a smell can magically catapult us through time and space to a particular recollection. It’s how, when I smell geranium, I am transported back to my grandmother’s greenhouse as a toddler, where she rubbed my fingers on a scented geranium and held them to my nose. The memory is so vivid in my mind’s eye, I can not only conjure up her face, but actually see the pattern on her dress.
What I also love is how smell can create an almost Pavlovian response, whereby it can start to trigger a specific state of mind – that ‘emotional toolkit’ idea. It’s why there’s an Into the Mystic candle flickering on my desk right now, tethering me, even on the craziest of days, with its deep, soothing blend of lavender, oakmoss, cedarwood and green galbanum. And there’s a Dreams candle in my bathroom, for when I want to stop the world, run the taps and clear my head.
The science of aromachology may indeed be catching up with why specific smells exert such power on our psyche. Meanwhile, I’ll happily settle for the magic.
Jo Fairley is an author, journalist and motivational speaker. One of the UK’s leading female entrepreneurs, she co-founded Green & Black’s – the world’s first organic chocolate and UK’s first Fairtrade-marked product – and The Perfume Society, which helps individuals to develop their sense of smell via the exploration of fragrance.
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