As creatures that navigate the world around us through sight more than any other sense, human beings have a tendency to take their sense of smell for granted.
To such an extent that we even radically downplay just how amazing our sense of smell is. For example, have you ever heard that one about people having a far, far inferior sense of smell to dogs?
Well, scientists have now proven that’s simply not true. The human nose can detect a trillion different odours, right up there with the best sniffer dogs. It’s just that, unlike canines and other animals, we’ve lost the knack of navigating the world around us through scents.
One thing most people would agree with, however, is that aromas have an uncanny ability to unlock memories and emotions in powerful ways. This isn’t just a perception. Scientific studies into the olfactory system (our sense of smell) shows that aromas not only act on our brains in a more direct way than any of the other four senses, they also specifically target the parts of the brain that control emotion and memory.
So while our rational brains work overtime interpreting and categorising the things we see and hear (including, for example, the complex process of making sense of language), smell hits a much deeper, more primal part of us altogether. It’s no exaggeration, and no illusion, to say we feel smells. They genuinely do trigger an emotional response in us.
Which begs a question when it comes to the fragrances we wear – what kind of emotions do they inspire in us? And can that help explain what draws us to them, or why we prefer certain fragrances for certain occasions? Could we even use aromatic products to change our mood?
It should be pointed out that emotional responses to smells are not universal, that they are partly determined by experience, memory and our own body chemistry. But even so, common patterns in how people respond to certain families of fragrance can be identified. Here are how five common fragrance types could influence your emotions and your mood.
Floral fragrances are, of course, a very broad category with a great deal of variety between different types. But across the board, studies suggest that people by and large associate floral aromas with feelings of comfort and well-being. They help us feel safe, they promote self-confidence, which goes some way to explaining why floral fragrances have for so long been associated with ‘going out’ perfumes, especially for women. And in aromatherapy, fragrances like jasmine have a long history of being used to help people de-stress and relax.
Citrussy fragrances are popular for being clean, refreshing, light and uplifting. They are particularly popular as ‘summer’ fragrances when the mood doesn’t really suit anything too heavy and cloying. And there are good reasons why this is so when we delve into the kind of emotional effect citrus-laden scents have on us. People’s responses to citrus aromas often focus on how they find them invigorating and energising, which is exactly what we all need in warm weather – the olfactory equivalent of a long, cool drink or a dip in a pool.
Breaking down what you mean by a ‘woody’ fragrance isn’t easy, as again different types have different properties. Some carry a herby or spicy richness and complexity, some are fresh and ‘green’ like pine needles and fresh grass, some have a distinct earthiness about them like the scent of woodland in the autumn. In terms of association, many people instinctively describe woody fragrances like sandalwood, patchouli and vetiver as sensual and desirable, which again explains why they are such a common feature of ‘going out’ fragrances.
What do you think of when you taste vanilla ice cream? No, contrary to popular belief, for a majority of people, the answer isn’t ‘boring’. It’s a taste that we widely associate with comfort and contentment. With memories of childhood, homeliness, simple, innocent pleasures.
It’s an association many people have with the smell of vanilla, too, which is also a very common agreement in fragrances. More generally, these are emotions that are widely triggered by any kind of sweet-smelling aroma, including fruits and especially sweet floral scents like jasmine, hyacinth and frangipani.
Also widely known as ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’ scents, there is a fair amount of crossover between spicy and woody fragrances, largely due to the intensely aromatic nature of barks like sandalwood, and oils and resins like patchouli and oud.
But this category also includes fragrances that, certainly from culinary uses, we would more immediately identify as spices – peppercorn, cardamon, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and so on.
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One of the standout characteristics of spicy or exotic fragrances is their complexity, which also means they are capable of triggering a complex range of emotions. So for example, while many share the kind of earthy sensuality we associate with ‘true’ woody aromas, the likes of cinnamon and nutmeg are also unquestionably sweet, while cardamon has a sharp, citrusy edge to it.
We can presume that part of the appeal of spicy, exotic fragrances, and perhaps especially those with extensive ingredient lists, is their ability to pull us in different directions emotionally, like a great piece of music or theatre.
Interested to know what kind of an emotional ride top-quality fragrances could take you on? Why not experiment by ordering miniature fragrance samples online? It’s the cheap, no-hassle way to discover your next favourite fragrance.