Fragrance and mood – like a cat burglar in your brain

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A fragrance is like a cat burglar in your brain, it has the key with which to pick the lock and unleash your memories.”  – Roja Dove

All our senses give us a window on to the world, but the sense of smell is different.  Looking at old photographs can be effective at evoking flashbacks, just as hearing a long forgotten song on the radio can.  However, smells have a uniquely powerful way of piercing straight to the core – the place we keep our recollections – an arrow shot straight to the centre of memory lane.

Most people have smell ‘triggers’ – aromas which, as soon as they hit the nostrils, bring a particular remembrance flooding back and these are very much particular to the individual.

For me it’s the smell of freshly laid tar! As a boy of five or six I probably hadn’t experienced this particular aroma before.  Now, decades later, just one sniff and I’m transported straight back to my childhood.

I vividly remember where I was at the time, and the other memories and emotions associated with it, come alongside  to re-create the whole picture.  It was a hot summer’s day during the school holidays, I can see and hear the noisy, tar-laying machinery which probably piqued my boyhood interest …I was happy.  So this, to me, is a pleasant smell – it has happy associations.

How are emotions and memories triggered by smell?

The way the brain is organised is considered to be the key.  Firstly particles of the thing you’re smelling enter the nose. The olfactory bulb is the part of the brain which is responsible for the processing of this sense information.  Crucially, it has direct connections to the limbic system – the  area which is the seat of emotion and memory.  This is often thought of as the ‘primitive’ part of the brain, because these structures were present in our early ancestors – the first mammals.

Processing of the other senses – sight, sounds, touch – doesn’t take this path.  This, therefore is the   thing that sets the sense of smell apart from the others.

Fragrance and mood

Scents can have a dramatic effect on our sense of well-being – and have  been shown to have positive effects on stress, sleep, self-confidence, and even on physical and mental performance.

Once we recognise these beneficial effects of fragrances it makes sense to make use of this in our everyday lives. Choosing the right scent, at the right time, to positively affect mental states, is something more and more people are doing these days.

A list of fragrances which effect the emotions

Stress & sleep problems:  Chamomile, Cinnamon, Frankincense, Lavender,  Marjoram,  Nutmeg, Orange, Rose, Sandalwood, Valerian, Vanilla, Violet, and Ylang-ylang.

Boost energy & combat tiredness:  Camphor, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Fennel, Peppermint, Pine, Sage.

Improve memory:  Jasmine, Lavender, Rosemary.

Lift the mood:  Bergamot, Jasmine, Grapefruit, Lavender,  Neroli, Orange,  Rose Geranium, Sandalwood, Tangerine and Ylang-ylang.

Increase confidence:  Jasmine, Frankincense, Sandalwood

Promote calmness:  Bergamot, Cedarwood, Cypress, Frankincense,  Lavender, Marjoram, Orange, Peach, Rose.

Finally, a brief diversion on the subject of perception of smell

When you put your nose up to a flower, it’s easy to forget that the fragrance of ‘rose’ for example,  has less to do with the plant than to the workings of your brain.  The very ‘rosiness’ of the smell is not something inherent to the plant itself, instead it’s something your brain manufactures.

In fact, it’s true to say, that smells don’t exist without brains to perceive them.  Smells, and equally sounds, colour, touch sensations etc, are inventions of the brain, rather than things that exist ‘out there’ in the world . Perceptions are a way of allowing the world to be navigated and understood.

the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, ready to remind us… the immense edifice of memory” Marcel Proust


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