Scent, memory and “feeling at home”.
Every home has its own scent whether we have chosen it consciously or it has emerged unconsciously over time. Scent, like colour and sound, has the ability to transport us immediately into memory. Scientific research has proven that our sense of smell (olfaction) is directly connected to our Limbic system; the areas of the brain which process emotional expression behaviour and sensation. Our limbic system is said to provide us with our general “set point” for feeling. It is our mind-body connection.
Our limbic system was originally referred to as our “rhinencephalon” or nose brain, which gives us some indication of the enormous impact our sense of smell has on its function. Sight and sound also impact the limbic system but they are not as immediately and directly connected as is our sense of smell.
But how does this work? a brief peek at the biology of smell
Our complex olfactory system has 100million highly specialised smell receptor cells (in our olfactory membrane, a small patch of cells in our noses) which uptake information once a smell is detected. Smell is the most primitive and fundamental of our senses and is sharpest at birth. Newborns orient themselves primarily by scent detecting their mother.
Our olfactory system acts like a memory bank for smells, which serves to remind us of the positive or negative experiences we have stored over time about that particular scent. When we smell something , this information is instantly sent for processing to the brain via two separate roots;
- one to the frontal cortex which identifies the smell; smoke / bread.
- the other to the hypothalmus, amygdala and other parts of the limbic system (the emotional pathway) which incredibly quickly triggers our memories and response. Whether that is the smell of smoke which implies danger and quickly activates our fight/flight instinct, or the smell of freshly baked bread which is comforting, reminding us of nourishment and stimulates our digestive juices.
Our olfactory system can layer the multiple qualities of a scent and record a pattern of scent somewhat like the pattern of colours created on a patchwork quilt or in a beautiful mosaic or the of a group of musical notes played together, which we detect as a “musical chord” of smells. This then forms the basis for our ability to recognise and form memories of approximately 10,000 different odours.
Our response to a stimulus in the form of a scent depends first on our perception of it; the memory we associate with it. It is not surprising then, that estate agents recommend emphasising recognised particularly homely scents (such as fresh laundry or freshly brewed coffee) and masking unpleasant odours like “wet dog” or smelly socks when trying to sell our homes.
We can become unconscious of the smells which pervade our homes, whether the smells of cooking, our pets, laundry, cleaning products etc. Take a moment when you first walk in the front door to notice – what is the first thing you smell? What memory or emotion does that evoke? Does it make you feel comfortable or irritated? Each of us is impacted differently by various scents based on our memories and associations with them. Decide if the scent of your home is welcoming and pleasant or could it do with some adjustment? Then make some changes accordingly.
Next we will delve deeper into the world of incense and aromatherapy..