Why does scent have the power to instantly - and poignantly - transport us back to a time, place or person? If the scent of an ex-partner's fragrance has ever wafted past you on the street to leave you feeling desperately nostalgic, or the smell of fresh cut grass leaves you longing for those optimistic, early summer days, then read on...
The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are completely intertwined and are located in the same network of neural structures, called the limbic system. Around 7 centimetres up both our nostrils there are millions of olfactory receptors, which pick up scents and communicate to our olfactory bulbs, which then relay information about the odours to our limbic system, which is the ancient, primitive core of the brain that dates far, far back in our evolutionary history. Within the limbic system, the amygdala can be found, which evolved at a later date in our evolution and is effectively what makes us ‘human’. This is where the brain handles emotion. Without an amygdala we cannot experience or process emotional experiences, or express our own emotions, nor learn or remember emotional events or how certain experiences made us feel. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we perceive a scent, the amygdala becomes activated and the more emotional our connection to the scent, the more intense the activation is. No other sensory system has this kind of direct access to the part of the brain that controls our emotions.
Why have we evolved in this way? And why does odour trigger emotions associated to memories? The accepted theory claims that it is all about how we process those scented molecules that travel up our nostrils and into our olfactory receptors, which send a signal for the brain to make sense of. In modern day life, our brain might translate the scent molecules from a friend's perfume to conclude things like, 'Aha, Emma's arrived!' But, in the history of the human race,our sense of smell served as a critical function of our day-to-day survival.
Back when we lived in caves we needed to be able to detect the odour of an approaching sabre toothed tiger, avoid eating things that might poison us and sniff out healthy, nourishing food. The quickest way for our brain to tell us whether the scent of our environment was good or bad in the context of our immediate survival, was to link it to a pre-experienced memory of the same odour and the emotions associated with that memory. For example, ‘fear’ was the likely emotion attached to the memory of the scent of a sabre toothed tiger, which would have triggered our ‘fight or flight’ response when we encountered that scent again. ‘Disgust’ would likely be the emotion attached to a piece of rotten meat, which would prevent us from eating it if we smelt it again.
Ultimately, at The Library of Fragrance, we believe that fragrance and scent in personal use can reach far deeper than simply meeting the desire to smell ‘nice’, or wishing to connect with an aspirational fine fragrance advertisement. The motivations that drive our scent preferences are as uniquely diverse as our own, individual life experiences, which is why we have a vast ‘library’ to choose from, and why our scents can be mixed, matched and layered to create personalised combinations that relate to each of our customers. Interesting, eh?