Most people underestimate the importance of scent. If asked, they would probably say that they consider the sense of smell to be beneficial but not essential. The lack of sense of smell may not be considered a disability, the way the inability to see or hear would be, however, scent and the ability to perceive it are more important to your life than you might realize.
Smell is one of the first senses that human beings develop. A fetus has a fully developed sense of smell while still in the womb. Smell is also one of the oldest senses. Early humans probably relied on their senses of smell to find food and mates, as well as avoid danger. In fact, research suggests that humans are still using scent in this way, although usually not on a conscious level.
The Importance of Scent to Emotions
Smell is different than the other senses in one very important respect. The visual and auditory nerves transmit signals to the thalamus, which is the structure in the brain that controls consciousness. However, the olfactory nerve that controls the sense of smell bypasses the thalamus. While it is certainly possible to be conscious of what you are smelling, it is likely that your olfactory system collects and processes more scent data than you ever think about.
Instead of traveling to the thalamus, olfactory nerve signals go to the amygdala, which regulates emotion. As a result, it is common for a smell to produce a strong wave of emotion, either positive or negative, depending on the association formed in your mind. At first, you may not even realize why you are feeling the way you do.
Research shows that sweat glands produce different chemicals in response to different emotional states. It also suggests that other people can perceive these emotions subconsciously through the sense of smell and often start showing the same emotion. If you’ve ever been in a situation in which one person’s mood seems to affect those of people around him or her, that may be an explanation why.
The Importance of Smell to Memory
The olfactory nerve also connects to the hippocampus. Like the amygdala, the hippocampus is part of the limbic system in the brain. While the amygdala controls emotions, the hippocampus is the area of the brain in which memories are formed. A particular memory can get coded in the brain along with a certain scent that was perceivable at the time that it was formed. As a result, exposure to the same smell later in life can strongly evoke the memory, even if it was not readily accessible beforehand. Scents are often most evocative of memories from childhood, which may be because smell is the most developed sense a child has until he or she turns 10 years old, at which point sight outstrips it.
At one point, it was estimated that humans could perceive approximately 10,000 unique scents. A 2014 study demonstrates that that number is actually closer to 1 trillion. Not only is the human brain able to perceive more smells than previously thought, but it can also recall them more effectively than other sense memories. For example, after only a few months, visual memory reduces to 50%, meaning that people cannot identify sights that they have seen before. However, even one year after exposure, people can remember and correctly identify a scent with 65% accuracy.
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The Significance of Smell to Mental and Physical Health
Because scents can affect emotions, people in health care facilities sometimes use them deliberately to help keep people calm. Soothing scents can be used to great effect in emergency rooms, nursing homes, and mental health facilities.
Anosmia is the scientific term given to the condition of not being able to smell. It is usually temporary but sometimes chronic. It may be present from birth or acquired later in life. People who have chronic anosmia may report mental health complaints, such as depression or a blunting of emotions. A loss of smell may interfere with your ability to connect with other people and form close relationships. People with anosmia do not report a loss of memory but rather a loss of emotional connection with their recollections.
The sense of smell, or the loss thereof, can also be an indicator of physical health. For example, anosmia is considered a telltale sign of COVID-19, a symptom that has sometimes persisted long after the others resolved completely. Once the connection between anosmia and COVID was discovered, it helped doctors identify patients who were likely infected and needed testing to confirm. Anosmia can also be an early symptom of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as multiple sclerosis.
The Importance of Scent to Safety
The sense of smell can alert you to a hazardous situation. For example, if there is a fire, you may smell smoke. A distinctive odor is added to natural gas so that if a leak occurs, you can identify the danger, escape to safety, and alert the appropriate authorities to deal with it. A sour or pungent aroma coming from food may inform you that it is spoiled and not safe to eat. Because smells provoke an immediate emotional response, they may help you react more quickly to the danger without having to deliberate.
In fact, sometimes a scent actually produces pain signals in the brain to communicate a possible threat. Because human emotions seem to be evocable through scent on a subconscious level, it may be possible that what you are detecting is the fear of someone else in the room. This may alert you to a threat that is present even if you don’t perceive it directly, which can give you more time to react.
The Significance of Scent to Identification
Just as everyone has a unique set of fingerprints, every individual has his or her own distinctive scent. This is strongly influenced by genetics and is not something you can control. The best you can do is to add other scents to it. Research suggests that humans are more sensitive to the smells of others than many people realize. There is even evidence that the sense of smell can be used to identify the possible perpetrators of a crime as part of an olfactory line-up.
Scent may also help family members identify one another. In one study, babies exposed to pads containing the scents of their mothers and other lactating women, kept their heads turned toward their mother’s smell for much longer. Since the sense of smell develops in the womb, one theory is that unborn babies learn the scents of their mothers from the amniotic fluid while still in utero. Studies also show that, even a few hours after birth, mothers who were separated from their babies could identify them by smell nearly two-thirds of the time.
Producers and retailers of consumer goods use scent as a means of identifying their unique brand. They formulate their own custom scents and use diffusers to spread the scent throughout the store.
The Importance of Scent to Bonding
Not only does smell help mothers and babies (and probably fathers, too) identify one another, it also helps them to form a bond with one another. A 2013 study showed that mothers who sniffed cotton undershirts worn by newborns showed increased activity in the reward system of the brain compared to women who didn’t have children.
Scent has potential effects on relationships of a romantic nature. Researchers believe that scent subconsciously informs you whether you and a potential paramour are genetically compatible and therefore likely to produce healthy offspring. You may also be able to tell by a certain person’s smell whether he or she is healthy or has a disease that may be passed on to your children.
The impact of scent on love and romance has been known for some time. For centuries, people have been using perfume, cologne, and other scented personal hygiene products in the hopes of attracting a mate. Now, there is scientific evidence to support the idea that changing your scent can make you more attractive to others. Participants of a study were exposed to certain scents while looking at pictures of women and asked to estimate the age and weight of each. They estimated that their weight was four pounds lighter when smelling floral, spicy scents and guessed they were 12 years younger than their actual age when exposed to the scent of grapefruit.
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The Effect of Scent on Food and Taste
In a modern world of farms, grocery stores, and restaurants, human beings no longer need to expend a lot of time and energy looking for food. However, back in prehistory, early humans needed to feed by hunting and gathering, and their sense of smell was probably one of their most significant tools when it came to locating and hunting food. Then, as now, human beings were omnivorous, feeding on both plants and animals. However, back then they may have relied more heavily on the former than the latter.
When comparing the olfactory abilities of humans versus dogs, which are primarily carnivorous, canines are more sensitive to meaty smells such as fatty acids. However, despite the renowned olfactory senses of dogs, humans are actually more sensitive to plant-produced aromas. Plus, while you may not need your sense of smell to lead you to the nearest restaurant or bakery, the smells of food cooking and baking may entice you to come inside.
Scent has a significant effect on the way you taste your food as well. The human tongue can perceive a handful of basic tastes, such as salty, sweet, and bitter. However, most of the flavor of the food comes from molecules that are released as you chew and travel to the epithelium in the back of your nose, where they are perceived as flavors.
If you eat chocolate ice cream, then vanilla, with your nose pinched closed, you could tell that both are sweet but you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the flavors. This is the reason why a respiratory infection, such as a cold, deadens your sense of taste. People with anosmia sometimes report that the inability to perceive flavors makes eating more difficult and less enjoyable.
The Importance of Scent to Concentration and Productivity
Many people may attempt to revive themselves by drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages. However, research shows that scent may be more effective at increasing concentration levels by cutting through brain fog. A Japanese study found that diffusing lemon oil through an office building increased productivity by 54% among data entry operators because of increased alertness. Furthermore, unlike caffeine and other drugs, such invigorating scents do not seem to produce any harmful side effects.
The Effect of Smell on Time Perception
While time advances at a persistent pace, human beings often do not perceive it that way. Subjectively, time often seems to pass very quickly or very slowly. Scent can affect this perception as well. Compared to people who were exposed to no aroma, participants in a study who were exposed to the smell of baby powder perceived the passage of time to be longer, while those exposed to a coffee smell perceived it being shorter.
When you perceive a smell that is pleasant to you, you may be more likely to linger in the vicinity for a while to get the most enjoyment out of it. Retailers have observed this tendency and taken advantage of it, trying to increase the time customers spend in stores by exposing shoppers to pleasurable aromas.
Take Advantage of the Importance of Scent
Now that you know more about the importance of scent, you can see how, if harnessed and used correctly, it can benefit your home or business. Contact us at Whole Home Scenting to find out more about how to diffuse special fragrances throughout your space using the power of your HVAC system.