The Psychology Of Olfaction: How Smell Can Influence Your Mood And Behavior

Psychology Of Olfaction

Here’s our scents and our sense of smell affects our mood and behavior:

1. Olfaction and memory

Our sense of smell or olfaction is closely linked to our memory, perhaps more than any other human senses due to the unique anatomy of our brain, believes Harvard’s Venkatesh Murthy, a Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Certain scents can even evoke memories from childhood. “This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience,” explains the Fifth Sense. French novelist Marcel Proust in his book Remembrance of Things Past talks about how scents are often associated with early life experiences that are stored in our memory. This is known as the Proustian memory effect. “Childhood memories linked to scent stay with people throughout life,” explains Christopher Bergland.

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Scents are very important and special as “they can bring back memories that might otherwise never be recalled,” says Herz. She addsIf there’s a smell that’s connected to something that happened way in your past and you never run into that smell again, you may never remember what that thing was. And this is unlike any of our other sensory experiences.

2. Olfaction and emotion

Scents can be very emotive and may stimulate strong emotional reactions. According to the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) “The perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odors themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations.” Research shows that most of our preference of and aversion towards scents are primarily based on emotional associations. As mentioned earlier, our olfactory receptors are linked with the limbic system which regulates our emotions. So when a scent stimulates our brain and activates our limbic system, deep-rooted emotional responses are triggered.

Smell also plays a crucial role in romantic attraction as body odors can make us like or dislike someone. Infact, research at Chicago University found that we prefer smells of individuals with better genetic material related to immunity.  According to the Fifth Sense, “Research has shown that our body odour, produced by the genes which make up our immune system, can help us subconsciously choose our partners.” 

Moreover, a 2013 study found that there is a strong relationship between our sense of smell and emotions. The study states “Phylogenetically the most ancient sense, olfaction is characterized by a unique intimacy with the emotion system.” Unfortunately, certain scents and olfaction can also strongly trigger negative emotions, especially in people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), explains Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at Penn State College of Medicine.

Read also: How to Improve Mental and Emotional Health

3. Olfaction and creativity

Our sense of smell can even influence our cognitive abilities and our creativity. By influencing our memories and emotions, scents tend to regulate our moods (how we think) and behavior (how we act). And our mood plays a crucial role when it comes to being creative.

In a Scientific American article, psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains “In terms of cognition, mood has been shown to influence creativity with the typical finding that people in a positive mood exhibit higher levels of creativity than individuals in a bad mood. Odors can also produce the same effects.” She adds “When people were exposed to an odor they liked creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odor condition.” Environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, Ph.D. believes that different types of smell can trigger different psychological reactions. She believes that the scent of vanilla and cinnamon can actually help to improve our creativity.

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4. Olfaction and performance

Smell can also influence our performance and determine our productivity. A positive mood  increases our productivity and a negative mood decreases prosocial behavior. It has been observed that pleasant ambient odors can also help to improve productivity and prosocial behavior. 

Herz writes “People who worked in the presence of a pleasant smelling air freshener also reported higher self-efficacy, set higher goals and were more likely to employ efficient work strategies than participants who worked in a no-odor condition.” On the other hand, it has been found that malodor in the work environment can reduce our subjective judgments and decrease our tolerance for frustration. 

Read also: 10 Ways To Develop Logical Thinking Skills

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