Should we always follow our nose?

How scents affect our body and mind.

23,000 times – that´s how many breaths we take on average per day. And that means a multitude off different scents float in through our nose evoking a wide variety of reactions in us. In this article we´ll explain the psychological reasons behind this and why we should let our noses discover new things more often.

women with tea

Our senses are the gateway to the world. We perceive the world around us not only with our eyes, ears and mouth, but also, and to a large extent, with our nose. Millions of olfactory cells mean we can detect even the tiniest molecules, which our other senses are unable to determine. And yet, for a long time, the human sense of smell was underestimated. It was only a study by the Rockefeller University that revealed that our nose can distinguish a billion different scents, and not only 10,000 as previously assumed. But if we want to describe them, words often fail us. The human vocabulary simply is not big enough to cover a billion scents. Instead, we draw on personal memories and associations. When trying to describe the scent of an orange, for example, we could use definitions like "fruity", citrusy” or “fresh”. These do indeed provide a general idea, but if we want to be really precise, we'd have to resort to “it smells of orange”. On the other hand, if we're reminded of a well-laid breakfast table with freshly squeezed juice or are nostalgic about our last holiday in Spain, a comparison with personal experiences makes it a lot more tangible.
Why is that? The olfactory cells are much more closely connected to the memory centre than to the speech centre. Before scents are stored and consciously perceived in the cerebrum, they pass through the limbic system, the emotional centre of our brain. This is why memories triggered by a scent are always linked to a particular situation.

 

 

Context is key.

So, emotions also tell us which stimuli are positive and which are negative. Context is key here: we have with a scent will depend on the situation in which we first encountered it. And so scents that we connect with positive experiences attract us. Negative stimuli, on the other hand, we intuitively reject. Our perception of these is also stronger, which means they have a far greater influence on our behaviour than positive stimuli. This even impacts on how we interact with others: if someone literally “gets up our nose”, we usually really don't like them - no matter how hard we try. Generally speaking, the following applies: if we breathe in scent molecules, this influences our emotional and physical state.

Is it all just in the head?

Vanilla, lavender, peppermint – many scents are believed to have a particular effect on the body. Peppermint, for example, is said to be invigorating and help enhance concentration. An American survey has shown that students can solve mathematical problems more easily if the room smells of mint. So, this scent is often recommended for the study. Why is that? Again, context could be key here, as can clearly be seen in thecase of lavender. As lavender is often contained in bath oils and people love to take baths for relaxation, lavender is associated with a calming effect. The same also applies to peppermint: the plant is almost always described using the adjective “invigorating” and we're therefore more likely to memorise its scent as being stimulating.

Generally speaking, the following applies: if a scent is linked to a particular situation or expectation, we adapt our perception of it accordingly. Ultimately, scents are therefore (purely) a matter of habit.

lavender
Avoury teas

Going through life with your nose wide open.

We should therefore go through life not only with our eyes and ears wide open, but also with our nose wide open. We tend to perceive scents unconsciously, and that is why it is worth our while to take a closer look - or rather, a closer smell - at the whole complex. This way well know why certain scents evoke negative feelings. Perhaps it’s got to do with a negative memory. Or maybe it’s just because we're still unfamiliar with the scent and therefore find it annoying. Although it is quite normal to revisit the same scents because they tell a story or reveal something about our personality, it is also advisable to test out new things. You could start with something very small: perhaps prepare an invigorating cup of TRIPLE MINT instead of the usual black tea, or a cup of BLOOMING RASPBERRY with fruity hints of raspberry to celebrate spring - and enjoy the scents throughout your home. You might come to realise that this is precisely the scent you've been waiting for.