Discover the science
behind our sense of smell
Watching a film or listening to a song on the radio triggers emotional reactions; making you smile, laugh, or shed a tear. Our ability to interpret visual or auditory signals generated by films and songs is thanks to a sensory process in the brain called ‘transduction’ that converts light and sound into electrical signals that combine with chemical neurotransmitters to form the essence of how our brain thinks, feels and behaves at every moment of the day and night. Our sense of smell is also managed through transduction.
Sense of smell
Olfactory region connected to emotion and memory
The olfactory region of the brain, where smells are processed, is connected to many other brain regions, such as those involved in emotion (the amygdala), memory (the hippocampus) and multisensory regions (the orbitofrontal cortex). In effect, through its connections, our olfactory system forms a kind of ‘super-highway’ to memories or emotions. Odour messages are interpreted by all these different parts of the brain to evoke a response in the form of thoughts, feelings and actions.
Scientists are increasingly aware of ways that human senses can be harnessed to manage our own well-being – so fragrance can now be designed to stimulate the best emotional experience possible; the perfect relaxing fragrance for a warm soak in the bath or for laundering sheets to encourage a good night’s sleep.
John leads Givaudan’s in-house team of neuroscientists at Givaudan’s Sensory Centre in Ashford, UK and explains why we respond in this way:
“A fragrance is greater than the sum of its parts; it’s not just an odour, as we also add meaning to smells depending on what we associate with it. Scents start to become a concept, to stand for something. For example lemons don’t just mean citrus to us: they can also mean ‘clean’ or send us a richer message, such as reminding us of the time that we went for a romantic wander through lemon groves on an Sicilian holiday... a waft of the right citrusy scent – and all the memories and feelings of that time will come flooding back. The way in which the brain layers meaning on to smells is called configural processing: it’s a way of mapping the odour to a meaning.”
Sensory coherence? It makes sense
The meaning of scent signals can also be influenced by the context in which we experience them; by product packaging and even the time or place. Designers are increasingly aware of the need to address holistic product design, to create sensory coherence that amplifies brand messages – what’s on the pack must match the scent inside – as John describes: “When developing fragrances, we have to be careful not to confuse the brain. For example, we might sense a mismatch if we smell a relaxing fragrance packaged in an ‘invigorating’ colour. That’s because the messages on a product set up an expectation as to how that product will smell. We automatically look for visual cues that can fast track us to the experience we seek, such as being soothed, or invigorated. This is why visual cues are important, and helpful.”
Getting ‘more’ from your fragrance
Influencing the way in which people experience a perfume through colours, presentation or context is nothing new to marketers, but the insights of sensory science increasingly explain why we perceive perfumes in a certain way. For the brands of tomorrow, John states, fragrances will not only be a scent statement about the brands we use, but look set to become part of our own sensory management. “As we become more knowledgeable, there is a trend towards fragrances that ‘do more’ and offer an extra boost. This is being led by the wellness field, a domain that continues to grow. For example, fragrances may be used to optimise lifestyle: they can be designed to be relaxing, uplifting, reduce stress or help with sleep. These are small things, but they improve quality of life. Our in-house team of neuroscientists works with the fragrance development teams during the creative process to build in such benefits. We can already boost the technical properties of fragrance, as in how it functions, performs and lasts, and we are now also exploring how it could impact or improve people’s emotional state and well-being.”
So, what does the future of fragrance look like? Will exam rooms be filled with focus-sharpening scents? Could we quash arguments with aromatics? Perhaps the answer to some of our pressing problems is right under our nose.