You’re good-looking. You have taste. Like the sound of that? Are you touched? Much of the language of our everyday lives is informed by the myriad ways we perceive the world through our senses. Each of them has informed the way we speak, giving us a framework of metaphor that enables us to communicate our experiences as individuals through a system of shared points of sensory reference. But all senses are not equal. Of the five senses that shape our common understanding, in Western social discourse smell barely gets a look-in – except, perhaps, when it comes to inspiring negative terms. And, frankly, that stinks.
The second-class status of smell is at odds with the extent of its influence. We care about it less, perhaps, because it’s the most personal and subjective of the senses. We can generally be sure that what we are seeing, hearing or touching will be, broadly, the same for everyone else, but a smell – so localised, fleeting and finely nuanced – is a uniquely personal experience, one which most of us don’t have the vocabulary to share.
This needs to change. Scent may not be as obvious and in your face as sight or sound, but its impact on human behaviour cannot be overstated. It is one of the first senses to develop in the womb – many of our very first impressions of the world come to us through our nose. And what rich impressions those are. Although other animals have dramatically more refined senses of smell than our own, the five million or so olfactory receptors of the human nose are capable of detecting some substances at dilutions as small as one part in several billion. (Those receptors also play a bigger role in determining taste than taste buds themselves, transforming the five-stage roadshow of bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umani into a full-on festival of flavour.) The nose is a finely tuned instrument, alert to the subtlest shifts in the landscape of scent that surrounds us, ready to trigger our responses on practical, emotional and subconscious levels.
Go back to the dawn of humanity, and the ability to detect and evaluate scent functions as a relatively simple survival tool. Crudely put, if something smells good, you can probably eat it; if it smells bad, there’s a likelihood it will harm you. But the implications of smell do not exist in black and white, they are much more beatifully complicated than that. Because the sense of smell is processed in the limbic system, it shares brain-space with the two facets of the mind that are most distinctive in humans: emotion and memory, and smell is more intimately involved with the interplay of these than any of the other senses. This will not surprise anyone who has found themselves transported back to a childhood holiday or a wet winter evening by a snatch of a scent, or who developed a lifelong aversion to gladioli or a love of petrol fumes thanks to happy or unpleasant associations with an early experience. In a single, aromatic instant, scent can send you back in time with an emotional immediacy unparalleled by a sight, a sound or a sensation.
This phenomenon, too, likely has its roots in the survival mechanism. If you are unfortunate enough to be savaged by a wolf in a strawberry field, then the scent of strawberries – normally appealing – is, for your own safety, likely to trigger a negative reaction when you subsequently encounter it. As we go through our lives, we build up a wealth of experiences with a corresponding library of scents – not always logically organised, continually complicated by changing associations, and utterly personal to the individual.
There is, of course, some common ground. Take away the subjective element of emotional interpretation, and olfaction becomes a matter of brain chemistry, and chemistry is universal. Certain chemical combinations have certain effects on the brain, regardless of how we might personally interpret their scent. The neurochemistry of smell is a small but growing field, and studies are increasingly demonstrating that scent can be a great manipulator of the subconscious mind. On a basic level, for example, the aroma of jasmine can be linked to deeper, more satisfying sleep, whereas peppermint has been shown to boost alertness and improve performance in certain tasks. The Japanese company, Shimzu, uses a diurnal ‘programme’ of scent to influence its employee’s productivity: energising citrus in the morning, floral notes to boost concentration during the late-morning slump, and woodier notes such as cedar and cypress to relieve weariness in the afternoon and evening (coincidentally but intriguingly, this is the same rationale that went into the designing the on-the-skin scent evolution of Laboratory Perfumes’ Amber fragrance).
Some scents can predispose us to positive responses when meeting other people – several studies have suggested that people’s assessment of another’s personal attractiveness can be favourably influenced through the exposure to pleasant aromas. Entire industries are springing up to exploit the psychological influence of smell – beyond the pheremone pedlars of the 1990s. Shops and casinos are getting in on the act, nasally manipulating their clientele into spending more by relaxing them with florals, or attempting to transport them back to their childhoods with a nostalgic fug of bubble gum.
What all of this amounts to is that scent is the hidden mover of human behaviour, influencing us in ways we may not understand or even notice, making us happy or sleepy or lustful or at ease, changing our minds and shaping our social interactions, silent and unseen. The dichotomy at the heart of smell – that it is both emotionally personal and neurochemically universal – is what makes fragrance such a fascinating field. Perfumery is not simply a matter of making aromas that can be deemed pleasant by common consensus (otherwise we would all would be drenched in vanilla), nor of eliciting predictable responses by deploying one-dimensional chemical triggers. The challenge of the perfumer is engaging with all the diversity and contradiction of human experience, blending elements of scent to create complex, sometimes challenging fragrances that evoke a shifting spectrum of memories and moods – taking a chemistry set and, from it, creating art.