The sense of smell is primal and its route to our brain is direct and yet, it’s also the most sophisticated of our senses. While sight and touch each use four sensors or receptors, smell utilises at least 1,000 different receptor types. Unlike other sensory information, which is sent to the thalamus for processing first, scent travels directly to the hippocampus where we store memories. This explains why scent memory is so powerful, and the smells of our childhood are well remembered.
The perfume of my younger years was my Mother’s and it was called “Je Reviens,” or “I will return.” It did return, every Christmas and birthday, as do the memories of my glamorous Mother if I smell it today. This morning I sprayed a little perfume on as I do most days. Scent isn’t just connected to memory but also to mood. This is how I’m able justify wearing a perfume that is unavailable in my country. It comes from Kuwait via a dear friend, a typical Arab scent characteristic of that region. It’s exotic, transporting me to the East and to the mysterious within me. It makes me feel happy. I wear perfume for myself, not to mask but to enhance.
With regard to enhancement, scent is an effective way to be remembered but also to attract. If memorable is your aim, then you’d be as well throwing away the perfume and joining the unwashed. Even better for imprinting on our recollections, do what every dog knows best – roll in something unpleasant. The fact is, the brain is tenacious about holding on to what it doesn’t like.
Noxious odours are excellent for ensuring we aren’t forgotten but they do nothing to aid attraction. There’s been much said about pheromones but the essence of attraction is genetic, specifically immunity. We’re able to distinguish the immune strength and diversity of those we’re interested in by their scent. We aren’t attracted to people like us in this regard, but are seeking genetic variety. Women are hugely better at detecting differences in scent than men.
With super scent-ory powers, women should be expert at attracting a mate, but legions of single females wouldn’t agree. It’s not as simple as scent anymore. Women want everything from a good provider, involved parent and a sensitive listener to a household supporter, great lover and friend. A tall order. Fragrant ladies don’t help the olfactory dulled males either, masking our scent signals with a cornucopia of perfumes and potions.
We’re unlikely to dispense with our tall orders anytime soon, or our exotic and manufactured scents. The answer may lay in the beginning, with the earliest connections – our memories. Maybe every first date could be an artificial scent free zone. If this progresses to further dates, then one important test has already been passed. Shared, intense memories are good for bonding. Subsequent dates could include cooking for each other, visiting gardens, walking in the woods or on a beach, visits to spice stores or florists – anything aromatic with a path to the hippocampus.
Returning to the hippocampus, or the olfactory bulb as it’s also known, the most vivid scent recollections contain other answers too. The clues to the nature of our primary relationships may be found here. My Mother will forever be encapsulated within the smell of her perfume, nail polish, lipstick, the Finnish sweet bread she baked and her collection of hundreds of spices and herbs. I have few memories of things she did with me, scent or otherwise because she didn’t. My Father is found in the smell of cigarettes and Tabac aftershave, books and coffee, the smell of coffee shops we visited on his way to work, while I was mainly seen and not heard.
I don’t know what my children will remember about me. I like so many, appreciate the smell of petrol but also sandalwood, curry spices, especially coriander and cardomon. I love the scent of cedar, one of the only deep connections I have with the place I grew up. My olfactory bulb is full of Scotland though, the smell of its beaches and loamy forests, wild garlic and heather, wet wool and wellingtons, sweet tablet and peaty whisky, cold stone and coal fires and damp that permeates everything. These are just some of the scents of home and have become part of me. If love is anywhere it may well lie here, in smell.
A mother will know her babies just by their smell. Considering its influence, we should give this undervalued sense a greater prominence in our lives. When my children were younger and I was away for a night, they would take a t-shirt I’d worn and sleep in it or keep it near. This brought them comfort and made them feel closer to me. Whether it’s for attracting a mate, making connections, memories or giving solace – our sense of smell is amazing. As Helen Keller said, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” It reminds us of where we’ve been, but might also give us indications of where we should go.
ScienceBlogs, The Frontal Cortex, “Smell and Memory,” by Jonah Lehrer
You Tube, “Smell of Attraction – Science of Attraction,”
The Social Issues Research Centre, “The Smell Report,”
BBC Future, “Why can smells unlock forgotten memories?”
© S. Marian, Sept. 18, 2012