Take a moment to imagine this scene: You are walking down the street and you get a whiff of roasted coffee beans, you close your eyes and take a deep breath in. Think about how that makes you feel. Are you feeling comfy? Warm? A little less anxious? Perhaps even more awake? When that specific scent hits your olfactory sensory neurons, which are directly connected to your brain, and more specifically the emotion centre of your brain, you experience a change in emotion and attitude. All of this happens without any other sensory neuron being triggered- It is all in the scent! Therefore, scent is believed to be the most powerful sensory attracter. Don’t believe me? Let’s throw in some science:
Why so emotional?
As previously stated, the olfactory neurons found in your nose are directly connected to your brain. The part of the brain that these neurons are connected to is the most primitive and most ancient part of the brain known as the limbic system. According to cognitive scientists, the limbic system is the seat of emotion. Before your brain can even identify the specific smell, your limbic system has already been activated and has triggered a certain emotion. So, you actually feel an emotion before even realising what scent you have just encountered. Quite incredible, isn’t it?
Attitude is all in the mindset…nose?
Sounds a bit strange, I know. But before you knock it, let me explain: we already know that the limbic system is triggered before the cortex, where cognitive recognition occurs, and thus we experience emotion before anything else. Emotion predicts our attitudes and therefore our attitude towards something can be changed or reformed due to a scent, just like in the coffee scenario. This realisation dates back hundreds of years. For example, the Hindu culture have been using the scent from incense to feel calm and inspire clear thought. Studies around the world have shown how pleasant smells have dramatic effects in improving our moods and sense of well-being. This explains why anosmia (the complete loss of smell) often leads to depression.
Perception is in the nose of the beholder
Studies have shown that when people are exposed to a pleasant scent, they tend to have higher attractiveness ratings. The opposite result, i.e. lower attractiveness ratings, was shown when they were exposed to an unpleasant scent. When we are attracted to something we want it more and the following examples from studies carried out prove it:
- In a study, 84% of people were more likely to buy shoes (because they found them more attractive) when they were exposed to a pleasant smell.
- In the same study, after being exposed to the pleasant smell, 10-15% said they would pay more for the shoes.
- A Las Vegas casino experiment found that over 45% more money was gambled in a slot machine when the area was odourised with a pleasant smell.
- A shampoo that was ranked last on general performance in the first test was ranked first in the second test. The only thing that had been changed was the scent!
- In another study, a sweet citrus scent nearly doubled the average total purchases in a retail setting
These are just a few examples proving how smell changes our perception of people and things- perception truly is in the nose of the beholder.
What is a pleasant scent though?
The term “pleasant scent” is probably different for a lot of us. We all hold different memories and thus different emotions can be triggered by the same smell. You may love the smell of gasoline while the person next to you may be fighting the urge to get sick on your car cubby. But as much as we are all different, we are also all very similar. Our similarities give light to what is known as ‘universal pleasant smells’ such as coffee, vanilla, peppermint or that oh-so-good new car smell.
The proof is in the sweet scent of the pudding
Our olfactory bulbs in our noses are associated with our emotional processing and associative learning. No other sensory system has this type of intimate link and that is the power of scent!