The Re-emergence of Our Sense of Smell
Our sense of smell is linked directly to our sense of taste. Our taste buds can detect salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, but it is our sense of smell that tells us the difference between barbeque sauce and ketchup. (Consider how our ability to taste foods is hindered when we have the flu.)
Unlike many of our other senses, some studies suggest that our sense of smell does not decline with age. Research at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that our sense of smell is heightened through practice. Such studies suggest that people who use scent more often will be more able to enjoy its finer qualities—like a chef or sommelier.
The human sense of smell is also linked closely to emotion and memory, and it is believed to be related to our mental and physical health. For instance, breathing in the scent of the perfume your mother wore can make you feel like a child again. The olfactory system is connected directly to our limbic system, the part of our brain associated with emotion. Scents stimulate our limbic systems before the brain recognizes the fragrance. In other words, by the time we realize the smell of a fresh-baked apple pie, we are already experiencing the pleasant emotions it evokes.
Pleasant smell can give us strong emotional reactions, such as relaxation, comfort, even attraction, but an unpleasant odor can instantly alter the attractiveness of something, or someone. We associate something that smells bad as being something harmful and to be avoided, so the repellent quality of a scent is a signal for us to “back off.” Skunks are a prime example.
Inspired by recent research, the current trend in perfumed products is not only to gently scent your home but also to aid your mind, body, and soul. Many companies are marketing their product’s aroma as a therapeutic mood enhancer as one its many benefits. Many of the chemicals used in fragrances, the various popular scents such as orange, lavender, and chamomile, are shown to have pharmacological and stress reduction properties. Some fragranced products can reduce performance-related stress as measured by lowered blood pressure.
Other aromas can stimulate and improve our productivity. One Japanese company used the scent of citrus to stimulate their employees in the morning, floras in the afternoon to boost their concentration, and cedar in the evening to keep people alert and reduce fatigue.
As we are becoming more and more aware of the power of our noses, technology is advancing in the fragrance industry. Companies are developing new high-tech ways to extract scents which are too difficult to extract by traditional means. They are artificially replicating previously elusive aromas such as leather, race car and newspaper, so that we can enjoy those scents even when there isn’t a cowboy or a race track or a Washington Post handy.
As we learn more about our sense of smell and about the science of aromas, we will continue to discover new benefits of scents and new ways to perfume our lives.
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