March 30, 2021

Smelling a delightful aroma can be a very pleasurable experience, but the perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odors themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations.

Scent and emotions (Photo: Unsplash)

“Certain smells create a deja-vu of past events or experiences, which draw up various emotions. That occurrence is called associative learning .”

Different smells can evoke strong emotional reactions. In surveys on reactions to odors, responses show that many of our olfactory likes and dislikes are based purely on emotional associations. The science behind this, how scent connects us to and evokes certain emotions is proven true based on »associative learning«. Associative learning is the way that certain events or senses connect us to our past experiences that may trigger a positive or negative feeling associated with that memory.

According to a 2016 study in the scientific journal Brain Sciences, »odors that evoke positive autobiographical memories have the potential to increase positive emotions, decrease negative mood states, disrupt cravings, and reduce physiological indices of stress, including systemic markers of inflammation.« Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and leading world expert on the psychological science of smell says our relationships to certain scents are based on the personal and cultural associations we’ve made in our lives.

“Olfactory receptors are directly connected to our limbic system and hippocampus, which are the seat of emotion and formation of new memories.”

Scent and memories (Photo: Unsplash)

Our olfactory receptors are directly connected to our limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, which is thought to be the seat of emotion. The olfactory center also interacts directly with the hippocampus, a brain area involved in the formation of new memories. »No other senses have this kind of deep access,« Herz says. Given the intimate interconnections between smell and emotion, you also can use smells to evoke a loved one during the difficult periods apart, especially now, during this pandemic. Herz suggests sniffing a reminder of that individual (a used T-shirt or the person’s perfume). »A smell reminder can really conjure the person, more than just looking at a photo,« she says. This way you can actually get the feeling of the person from the smell.

»We can leverage odors to evoke desired emotions or responses. For example, to recall a loved one, to increase positive emotions, decrease negative emotions, trigger relaxation response or strengthen the immune system.”

Following how odors influence our moods and emotions, is the way that these moods can influence how we think (cognition) and how we act (behavior). In terms of cognition, mood has been shown to influence creativity with the typical finding that people in a positive mood exhibit higher levels of creativity than individuals in a bad mood. In research, when people were exposed to an odor they liked, creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odor. A growing body of literature also showed that positive mood is linked to increased productivity, performance and the tendency to help others, while negative mood reduced prosocial behavior. Conversely, the presence of a malodor reduced participants’ subjective judgments and increased their frustration.

“Odors also influence our o cognitive abilities, creativity, productivity, performance and the tendency to help others.”

So there you have it. Different odors and fragrances can influence our mood, based on the links between these scents, our memories and emotions, associated with these sensations. This can affect our work performance and many other forms of behavior via learned associations and particularly via learned emotional associations. So, the next time you smell a scent that you like, see if you can figure out where you first experienced it and then reflect on yourself and whether the scent makes you feel a certain way, or whether you experience any mood change. If yes, try and figure out if that mood makes you want to do anything in particular.