the whiff of coffee gives you a boost because your brain links it to the double shot latte you’ll soon be downing. And a certain perfume makes you glum if you wore it in a toxic relationship.
By Lydia House and Iantha Yu
It’s one of the few senses that’s already fully developed by the time you’re born. But while your sense of smell may have evolved to alert you to predators, these days, researchers are more inclined to investigate how the power of scent can be harnessed to change your mood, for the better.
“All but a few human responses are learnt – how we relate to and are impacted by scent included,” explains Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. “For some smells, your reaction is down to past exposure and whether that led to reward or a different consequence.” So, the whiff of coffee gives you a boost because your brain links it to the double shot latte you’ll soon be downing. And a certain perfume makes you glum if you wore it in a toxic relationship.
But when it comes to instant energizers, putting it down solely to personal exposure doesn’t paint the full picture. “It raises a question of ... why is it that certain scents – say peppermint and lime – are known to increase alertness, while lavender can have a calming effect,” continues Spence. “It could be that we’re socialized to believe these scents have particular effects.” One example? The heliotrope flower, which Spence says relaxes participants in his lab experiments. “We theorize that’s due to the fact they recall it being familiar ... because it’s a key note in baby powder, which harks back to the soothing environment of childhood.”
These effects of fragrance on mood and behaviour can play out more subliminally, too. “Take lemon, for example,” says Dr Mark Moss, head of psychology at the UK’s Northumbria University. “The link between this scent and cleanliness is well established through many household products fragranced with lemon, and studies have shown participants who smell lemon tend to keep their environments cleaner. The aroma ‘nudges’ you subconsciously by actioning the existing link in the brain between lemon and clean.” Makes sense!
Need to power through a big day? Studies by the University of Mohaghegh Ardabili in Iran tap peppermint for its energy-boosting qualities, helping athletes run faster, perform more push-ups and even improve grip strength. Impressive! “It decreases blood pressure and heart rate and increases respiratory function,” explains Professor Gaby Badre, neuroscientist and scientific adviser to beauty brand This Works. Citrus – lemon, bergamot, orange and grapefruit – is also a key family for energy, says Chinese medicine practitioner John Tsagaris. Carry a spray for top-ups or leave a bottle on your desk for a pre-meeting spritz. An energy boost via your olfactory system? You nose it. ■
Breaths comes in pairs except for two times in our lives – the beginning and the end.