Getting Emotional About Fragrance: Why Is Our Sense Of Smell So Closely Linked With Memory?

SPONSORED FEATURE: In Partnership With Michael Bublé’s Debut Fine Fragrance, ‘By Invitation’

“Smell is a sense that bypasses the rational mind, thwarts all efforts of language to describe it, and reaches sneaky neural wiring directly into regions beyond thought,” says Tania Sanchez, the author of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Ask anyone what their favourite smell is and they’ll undoubtedly describe a memory that brings about an overall feeling of contentedness or security; the aroma of a log fire burning at Christmas, the scent of a baby’s head during those first moments of nurturing, the fragrance of freshly cut grass on a summer’s day.  Rather importantly, perfume is an art – not a science – so it’s open to our own experiences, preferences and interpretations as if it was a Da Vinci painting; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what we’re experiencing, so we describe a moment or memory as a way of processing that information. Karine Dubreuil-Sereni (lead perfumer on Michael Bublé’s debut fragrance) desribes this perfectly: “Smell is the least educated of our senses, the most instinctive and animal. We don’t learn how to smell, it is not part of our education; we’re not able to analyze smells so we trust our associations and our memories.” When we’re breathing in a new fragrance or remembering a scent we used to douse ourselves in daily, it’s not the top notes or undertones we’re remembering – but way it made us feel.

So before we dive further into the relationship between scent and memory, it’s important to understand the science behind our sense of smell… During the ‘sniffing’ process, odor molecules pass through the mucus layer of the nose and come into contact with receptors in the olfactory mucosa ( located in the upper region of the nasal cavity); a signal is then sent by sensory neurons to the olfactory bulb (a lower part of the brain towards the front of the skull,) which allows the limbic brain (our center of emotions) to recognize the information as good or bad smell. Rather interestingly, we develop a fragrance library in our minds that is continually updated throughout our lives. Fundamentally, the reason smell has the strongest connection with emotion and memory is because we simply refer back to our past experiences to understand it.

Karine says: “From birth we retain the smell of thousands of different odors: you just have to re-smell a scent to be again overcome with emotion related to it. Sometimes consciously, often unconsciously, this reaction is always difficult to analyze by humans as channels of olfaction are not connected with the language centers. If it’s hard to put words to the feelings it generates, perfume nevertheless remains a memories stimulator.” Fragrance developers actually harness this power to create scents that are emotional and ensure we love them for years on end. Karine explains: “We look to the different tastes and specificity by country, because people’s tastes are strongly linked to their culture, the food they eat and their natural environment. We also pay attention to the success of perfumes historically, to understand the type of fragrance that people like.”

So how do we develop our own personal fragrance tastes? Karine says we simply “move from unconscious to conscious” by analysing the smells that we’ve loved before and look for them in fragrances available on the market. So if you think you’re smelling that new fragrance for the first time without any preconceptions, you’d be wrong: you’re already pre-programmed to either like it or not and search for scents that you already have a positive relationship with. Some of us may enjoy the sweet smell of florals and vanilla, but others may hate anything overly sweet as it reminds us of being a teen and saturating our bodies in sickly scents; similarly, the fragrance of lavender may become a personal favourite if it reminds you of what your grandmother used to wear when you were a child.

Our sense of smell is an incredibly powerful thing, but so our our memories. Like we tend to describe a new meat as ‘tasting like chicken’ as the closest way of processing that information, we have a tendency to describe fragrances as memories or emotions because we don’t have the vocabulary to get technical. Like a wine connoisseur can pinpoint and describe the elements of a fine red from Tuscany, a perfumer can determine the notes of a fine fragrance and perfectly verbalise them – for the rest of us, it’s either good or bad! Throughout our lives our brain connects scents with positive or negative connotations, which are then referred back to when we inhale that fragrance once again; so if you hated Chanel No5 when you were a teenager, you’re going to hate it for the rest of your life. Fragrance is all about feelings, impressions and memories – and that’s what makes it so entirely fascinating.

What positive and negative memories do you have around scent? What’s your all-time favourite fragrance, and what makes you wince in disgust?

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  1. Pam Scalfi
    August 23, 2016 / 9:49 am

    I HATED britney spears perfume when I was a teen, still hate it now too sweet lolTommie girl reminds me of my holiday in Brazil around 5 years ago, every time I wear it I remember my family and thw wonderful time there 😀 and when I wear Michael Kors rose gold, I remember my first time at London Fashion Week and how wonderful it was!Pam xo/ Pam Scalfi♥

    • Hayley Carr
      August 27, 2016 / 1:10 pm

      Tommie reminds me of being a teen too! And Jean Paul Gaultier of being in sweaty clubs, drinking WKD. It's amazing how we remember things by the scent we were wearing.

  2. alicekatex
    August 24, 2016 / 12:14 pm

    Side note: the pic of that fruit looks amazing ;)I really need to get into perfume more! What is your ultimate favourite? xxalicekatex

    • Hayley Carr
      August 27, 2016 / 1:10 pm

      Ooooh I change all the time. I do love Jo Malone for being unique and a bit different, but I also love things like Burberry and YSL for heavier scents.

  3. Polly Demetriou
    August 24, 2016 / 9:28 pm

    I am so awful with smells now, since chemo. Any smell that was around me during those chemo years I cannot hack anymore. Hubbies aftershave & deodorant. My mums perfume that she's worn for years. A candle that we had at home. The smell of spag bol. A certain fabric softener. They all make me sick now, it's bizare how smells can really effect you, association sickness is a bugger!Polly xx |

    • Hayley Carr
      August 27, 2016 / 1:11 pm

      Oh wow! I'd never thought about it like that – but of course scents can remind us of bad things too. Here's hoping you can make new memories with new scents and over come your hate of spag bol… Coz that's a real bummer!

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