Smell and Your Emotions
Your smell circuits are wired to those that process emotions, memory and motivation. Is this why you’re feeling so edgy, chatty, touched or sated right now?
The perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves, but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations.
Smells can evoke strong emotional reactions. Many of our old factory likes and dislikes are based purely on emotional associations.
The association of fragrance and emotion is not an invention of poets or perfume makers. Our old factory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, the most ancient part of our brain, which is the seat of our emotion. Smell sensations are relayed to the cortex (where ‘cognitive’ recognition occurs), only after the deepest parts of our brains have been stimulated. By the time we correctly name a particular scent eg vanilla, the scent has already activated the limbic system, triggering more deep seated emotional responses.
Although there is evidence that pleasant fragrances can improve our mood and sense of well being, some of these findings should be viewed with caution. Studies have shown that our expectations about an odour, rather than any direct effects of exposure to it, may sometimes be responsible for the mood and health benefits reported.
Researchers have found that just telling subjects that a pleasant or unpleasant odour was being administered, which they might not be able to smell, altered their self reports of mood and well being. The mere mention of a positive odour reduced reports of symptoms related to poor health and increased reports of positive mood.
The thought of pleasant fragrances may be enough to make us a bit more cheerful, but the actual smell can have dramatic effects in improving our mood and sense of well being.
Although old factory sensitivity generally declines with age, pleasant fragrances have been found to have positive effects on mood in all age groups.
Studies are claimed to indicate that positive emotions are predominantly processed by the left hemisphere of the brain, while negative emotions are more often processed by the right hemisphere.
The positive emotional effects of pleasant fragrances also affect our perceptions of other people. In experiments, subjects exposed to pleasant fragrances tend to give higher ‘attractiveness ratings’ to people in photographs. However, these effects are only significant where there is some ambiguity in the pictures.
If a person is just ‘average’, a pleasant fragrance will tip the balance of our evaluation in his or her favour.
Unpleasant smells can also affect our perceptions and evaluations. The presence of an unpleasant will give a subject not to give a lower rating to photographed individuals, but also to judge paintings as lesss professional.
The mood improving effects of pleasant smells may not always work to our advantage. By enhancing our positive perceptions and emotions, pleasant scents can cloud our judgement. In a Las Vegas casino, the amount of money gamble in a slot machine increase by over 45% when the site was odourized with a pleasent smell.
In a consumer test of shampoos, a shampoo which ranked last on general performance in an initial test, was ranked first in a second test after its fragrance had been altered. In the second test, participants said that the shampoo was easier to rinse out, foamed better and left the hair more glossy. Only the fragrance has been changed.
Scent preferences are a highly personal matter, to do with specific memories and associations. Experiments have shown that we tend to ‘like what we know’: people give higher pleasantness ratings to smells which they are able to identify correctly. There are also some fragrances which appear to be universally perceived at ‘pleasant’, such as vanilla, which has long been a standard ‘pleasant odour’ in psychological experiments.
Our tendency to prefer scents that we can identify correctly also shows that the use of an appropriate colour can help us to make the correct identification, thus increasing our liking for the fragrance.
The scent of cherries, for example, is accurately identified more often when presented along with the colour red. Colour helps to identify the scent significantly and enhance the rating of its pleasantness.