Why scent is the most evocative sense and how you can harness its benefits

From conjuring up memories of someone close, to transporting you to a place you visited decades ago, scent can have an overwhelming impact when we least expect it… 

It’s thought we can each detect up to a trillion scents. Before we even get to our desks, we’re unconsciously ricocheting from one to another.

Our morning beauty routine alone is packed with carefully crafted fragrances, each formulated to evoke a sense of calm, comfort and serenity.

And then we’re faced with the tempting wafts of flat whites from the local coffee shop, as we associate the scent with familiarity (and the basic need to function in the office, of course).

That said, even the smells we don’t necessarily welcome (rush hour Tube, we’re looking at you) can have a dramatic impact on us, often triggering an emotion or impacting our mood.

So, what is it that happens to us physically for scents to elicit such a strong response? 

Scent science

“Smell is linked to our early environment and experiences through the neural networks that have developed throughout our lives,” says psychologist Dr Georgina Barnett.

Have you ever wondered why the smell of colouring crayons can transport you back to the classroom? Or perhaps how the whiff of sunscreen conjures up memories of your first family holiday?

“The complex neural network is why particular smells transport us,” explains Dr Barnett. “For example, when you smell a perfume that a teacher used to wear, the memory is often instantly and vividly accessed.”

To get a little scientific, the olfactory nerve (or CN1) is responsible for transmitting smell-analysing messages to our brain. 

In fact, the whole olfactory system has strong neuroconnections to the parts of the brain that processes emotions and memory (the amygdala and hippocampus regions), which explains why we have these well-established associations. These ‘scent memories’ are then stored in our olfactory memory bank.

But how does scent measure up with our other senses? Is it really the most powerful in terms of the impact it has on our psyche?

The answer could well lie in ancient times. “Smell is the most primal of our senses and is processed in the most primitive part of the brain,” Dr Barnett explains. “From an evolutionary perspective, it’s been essential to our survival.

“Smell is often overlooked in comparison to sight and sound, and we rarely utilise its full power. We can, however, use scent to our advantage – after all, it has the power to evoke positive reactions in ourselves and in others.”

The power of perfume

So, when it comes to selecting a signature scent, can the power of fragrance be harnessed in a positive way?

Absolutely. Much like how lavender, citrus and tea tree are associated with enhancing relaxation and improving well-being, our choice of perfume can also play a major role in our mental state, according to Dr Barnett.

“A traditional perfume might instil a sense of familiarity and safety, whereas something new may be chosen to reflect a new venture in your life. 

“If you pair a scent with a particular situation, after a few occasions the perfume itself will trigger the state of mind you’re aiming for, be it power, seduction, adventure or well-being. You can even use certain fragrances for when you want to feel motivated at work.”

Scent and escapism

Scent used as a tool to tap into your emotions, memories and state of mind is undisputed, but can fragrance be used to transport you somewhere specific you’ve yet to visit?

“Every ingredient in perfumery has its own provenance and can become the quintessential scent of a place,” says perfumer and fragrance specialist Roja Dove. 

“Rose transports you to Bulgaria, saffron to India and oud to the Middle East. Ingredients native to a region become the olfactive embodiment of that place. When used in perfumery, they have the power to transport you to a different world.”

So, be it evoking a distant memory or transporting you to an as-yet unexplored part of the world, the power of scent is undeniable – and one to be cherished.  

Escape with your next fragrance from House of Fraser