Article by MME Staff Writer
Even in July, the smell of a fresh-cut pine tree evokes memories of Christmas; the scent of lilacs conjures up that light, airy feeling of spring; and the aroma of burgers on the grill stirs up memories of a summer barbecue.
“A number of studies have shown that the odors people like make them feel good,” writes Rachel Herz in an article for Psychology Today. Herz is a professor at Brown University and Boston College and a recognized expert in olfaction, the science of smell. “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.”
Studies have shown that our sense of smell can even predict Alzheimer’s disease and may even correlate with our political views! For many of us the pine tree, lilacs and hamburgers conjure up good memories. That may not be the case for everyone. We aren’t born knowing what smells good to us and what smells bad.
“For an odor to elicit any sort of response in you, you have to first learn to associate it with some event,” according to Herz.
In other words, if the pine tree reminds you of the time your house burned down on Christmas, that smell probably will not make you feel good.
A Direct Connection
Why is our sense of smell so powerful? For one, our olfactory sensory neurons, which are bundled high in the back of our nose, have a direct connection to the parts of the brain that process emotion and associative learning, Herz writes.
We also have smell nerves on the roof of our mouths, so when we chew, food releases aromas that contribute to our sense of taste. That’s why, when we have a cold and our noses are stuffed up, we are less likely to enjoy food.
It’s no wonder then that the sale of essential oils and diffusers has grown exponentially to become a billion-dollar business. The growth is not driven by yoga studios and massage therapists alone. Companies as diverse as 150-year-old food company Cargill and tech-start-up called Cheero are developing scent-related products. For example Cargill is a global conglomerate experimenting with compounds of thyme, cinnamon and oregano oils to improve chickens’ health and spur growth without antibiotics. Cheero, based in Japan and California, has developed the Sleepion, a device to promote sleep. The U-shaped machine emits soft music, gentle light, and soothing aromas, including a compound of lavender, cedarwood and geranium oils, to promote sleep, according to the company’s website.
That Coffee Smell
Caroli Young and her St. Louis-based company, International Scents, have jumped into the fray and are working to harness the power of our sense of smell. She uses several methods to diffuse natural and synthetic scents to ease anxiety in doctors’ waiting rooms, improve nursing home residents’ alertness, and increase coffee sales at convenience stores.
“Convenience stores are going to single-serve coffee makers so that coffee smell is not there,” Young said. “Their coffee and pizza sales went down.”
Our sense of smell is most accurate between the ages of 30 and 60 years, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology. After age 60 it starts to decline, and many seniors lose their sense of smell altogether. Women’s sense of smell tends to be more accurate than men’s, according to the Academy. The declining sense of smell in the elderly may explain why carefully enhanced smells can help in nursing homes.
“Baked breads bring a memory to them of childhood,” Young said. “Lavender and eucalyptus can be calming. Certain smells stimulate residents, make them more alert.”
Studies have shown that the scent of vanilla can help reduce anxiety so that patients can complete CAT scans and MRIs when they otherwise may not have been able to. Rosemary provides pep and may improve long-term memory. And the odor of oranges can ease anxiety in medical settings.
Young counts doctors’ offices as clients and her experience bears that out. “A lot of doctors may have it in their lobbies,” She said. “Doctors want a clean, fresh smell, sometimes a citrus.”
With new clients, Young first does a consultation to get an idea of what they’re trying to achieve and determine what scents might work for their situation. She will then develop a plan tailored to the client’s needs and recommend particular scents for a given situation. The plan will include how much, how often, and which scent will be diffused. She may set up portable diffusers in a doctor’s waiting room or tie into an office building’s HVAC system.
The system can be tailored to the client’s needs. “It might be on in the morning, or it can be on just for an hour or so, ” Young said. Or in the case of a nursing home, just during dinnertime, to stimulate patient’s appetites, she said. “It can be programmed for any amount of time, any days,” she said.
Why not Amazon?
So why not just buy a diffuser and some oil on Amazon? “Our scents are unique,” Young said. “We’ve done a lot of research and done a lot of testing. Our scent pallet is better than what you can just go buy.”
Young also offers odor neutralizers that can be combined with any scent to neutralize smoke, body odors, or stale air. She offers a cold diffuser that’s made for synthetic scents, she said, which are available for people who have allergies and may not be able to tolerate natural oils.
Young has a client who had an International Scents system in her vacation home. “I recently put an International Scents HVAC scent machine in my home in Hilton Head,” her client said. “I love it so much I am having them install one in my home in St. Louis.”
Young summed it up: “Scent is the fastest route to our memory. It’s just like music; it takes you back to a memory of a time or a place.” Young makes sure it’s a good one.