Fragrance Psychology: How Smells Are Subconsciously Controlling Your Moods

The Fragrance industry is booming, but behind the brand giants’ chemical rivalry lies an infant Manchurian Candidate-style science of manipulation.
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For all that passing through a store’s fragrance department now carries with it the risk of being sprayed with an overwhelming blend of the latest launches - of which there will be some 150 this year alone - it is fast becoming the least extreme method of convincing you that some new concoction is for you. Behind much modern fragrance design is what has come to be known as aroma-chology, the fledging psychology of understanding how we react to certain smells. Behind the brand giants’ chemical warfare lies an infant Manchurian Candidate-style science of manipulation.

“Smells are emotional,” explains Azzi Pickthall, fragrance designer for the likes of Agent Provocateur and Jasper Conran. “The natural raw materials now used to create many of them have mood-enhancing effects and, as a result of the rise of aromatherapy and the alternative health industry, consumers are starting to understand this.”

But perhaps not its full extent: if we can taste just four main flavours, our olfactory sensors are able to detect up to 10,000 different odours, even if our response to many is subliminal. Neuroscience tests at Boston’s Tufts Medical School have identified changes in skin potential stimulated by different odours, albeit in a salamander. Lizards may not wear Chanel No.5, but fragrance designers are no less aware of scents’ evocative powers; that, as Marcel Proust put it, they are “that last and best reserve of the past, the one which when all tears have run dry, can make us cry again”.

This is why, according to fragrance consultant Roja Dove, the three key fragrance trends of recent years have been the oriental, oceanic and gourmand - because all are powerfully evocative of stress-free places or childhood, with one fragrance even built around the smell of Play-Doh, others around cookie dough and fresh towels. Vanilla and chocolate ‘notes’ - as perfumers call the components of a fragrance - can create a sensation of comfort, perhaps because they are evocative of baking (hence the suggestion to bake fresh bread when showing your home to prospective buyers). Tobacco and leather smells have the same effect for men. Other smells have cultural, almost primordial resonance: frankincense, for instance, has accompanied religious rituals and spices have been used in foods for millennia.

“We’re at the dawn of understanding how this all works,” says Dove, “but clearly it does, which is why supermarkets also pump out baking smells even when they don’t have a bakery, and certain underground systems use scent to keep passengers calm. Similarly, olfactory manipulation can fire off associations with treats, escapism, happy times. It is a fascinating if slightly Orwellian idea.”

Certainly, by stimulating the olfactory pathways to the brain’s limbic system (which processes smell, mediates mood and stores memory) and causing the production of certain neuro-chemicals, a fragrance can encourage a sense of energy, relaxation, exhilaration, confidence and sensuality. Recent developments are also seeking to create ‘therapeutic’ fragrances that, for instance, improve sleep or work performance -  Shiseido, a leader in this field, is developing a fragrance to lower stress levels among Japanese astronauts, while the University of Japan has developed a scent-based alternative to anti-depressant drugs.

They can also help you get your wallet out. According to International Flavors & Fragrance (IFF), one of the world’s biggest suppliers to the fragrance industry, if the advertising message is that a fragrance will, for instance, enhance your inner beauty, it will almost certainly be aiming to trigger feelings of confidence; and emotional satisfaction with a product, even one that cannot be articulated, will lead to repeat sales.

Indeed, experiments by Canadian scent creators Riviera Concepts are establishing a correlation between certain smells and certain colours, textures and even sounds, leading to the prospect of fragrances being reverse engineered to evoke, for instance, roundness, softness, pinkness, or notes as easy on the ear as up the nose.

That may sound exciting but it may not be good for creativity. Being able to push our more obvious emotional buttons may lead to sales success, but, Dove argues, it also then risks making the future of fragrances a bland one. With some of the most successful fragrances of all time scoring badly in focus groups and initial reaction, the question will be whether aromochologists, and the brands behind them, will be ready to push the more adventurous buttons too.