Your sense of smell is way more important than you think

Your sense of smell is way more important than you think

I could always imagine him power spraying himself with the stuff when he got out of the shower: his underarms, his stomach, a warrior ‘X’ on his chest like they do in the adverts. Whenever I met up with him we’d sit there in a great invisible cloud of it, kissing on patio chairs outside his parents’ house in Surrey, heads inclined at textbook 45 degree angles, to the soundtrack of Counting Crows and the pump on the ornamental fishpond going 'cssst, csssst, cssst.' Oh, the sophisticated notes of Lynx Africa. Seventeen years later, the slightest waft of it gives me happy, 13-year-old ‘I have a real-life boyfriend!’ butterflies.

First Boyfriend and I have crossed paths many times since we put the lid on things romantically in a dramatic landline phone call. At the same university, we had a big gang of mutual friends, and every so often a photograph of him slides past on my Facebook feed.

Seeing him – in the flesh or in pictures – never has any real emotional impact on me. But that smell, or at least the smell of him back then (I can only assume his eau de toilette has progressed from Lynx in the years since) is different. I’m not just conjuring up memories of teenage emotions – I’m feeling them. Why does a generic high street body spray have the power to unlock the emotions of my old teenage self when a picture won’t? 

It’s because when you smell something, you don’t think, you feel. Our sense of smell and our feelings are in fact so closely linked that, incredibly, 75 per cent of our emotions are triggered by what we smell. ‘Something I like to consider,’ says cognitive neuroscientist, professor Rachel Herz, ‘is that we potentially wouldn’t have emotion if it weren’t for our sense of smell.’

Sound a little mind-boggling? Here’s the hard science. ‘When you smell something,’ Herz explains, ‘it lands on the mucus membrane at the top of your nose and then goes into the olfactory bulbs, which are two protrusions from your brain right at the level of your eyebrow.’ The olfactory bulbs are directly connected to the limbic system, the same part of the brain where emotion and memory are processed. ‘So the feeling you have when you smell something is, first and foremost, emotion.’

This is a totally different process to sight or sound. Herz says we might feel emotional hearing a memorable piece of music, but that’s only once our brain has processed the connection between the music and our specific memory of it. So I could listen to that Counting Crows album and feel a general sense of teen nostalgia, but it won’t conjure up the same instant pleasure – or pain – that a fragrance will. 

If you want to measure how important our sense of smell is to us, just look at what happens when it fails. In her brilliant book The Scent Of Desire, Herz lays out the devastating effects that anosmia (a loss of smell) can have on our wellbeing and happiness. She cites anosmia as a contributing factor to the 1997 suicide of the rock star Michael Hutchence, who fell into a deep depression after a head injury from a bicycle accident destroyed his olfactory system. ‘Without it,’ Herz writes, ‘the temptations of food, the essence of a walk on the beach, the feeling of nostalgia – the texture of life itself – were robbed from him.’ Smell isn’t just connected to pleasure, it’s central to it. 

Michael Hutchence in the mid-1990s

Herz has been working closely with The Library of Fragrance, a quirky scent company which taps into the scientific connections between smell, memory and pleasure. These days our motivations for buying a particular bottle of perfume can vary wildly. You might buy Prada Candy because you love that sweet whiff of caramel and musk, but equally you might buy it because you think the bottle is cool and you definitely can’t afford a Saffiano bag. The Library of Fragrance’s 300 scents strip olfactory pleasure right down to its roots. No fancy bottle, no beautiful model, no fashion house kudos. Each plainly packaged fragrance is designed to trigger good feelings by prodding at pre-existing memories.

Kendall Jenner promoting perfume for Estee Lauder 

The Library features everything from the obvious ‘Grass’, ‘Incense’, and ‘Honeysuckle’ to the less obvious ‘Fireplace’, ‘Pizza’ and ‘Dirt’. ‘Our “Baby Powder” cologne is a universal bestseller,’ says Mark Crames, CEO and ‘nose’ at The Library of Fragrance. ‘A lot of us like the smell of baby powder, because it reminds us of a time when we were nurtured.’ The popularity of other Library scents suggests our olfactory tastes are a little weirder than we may think. ‘Just because an odour doesn’t typically represent our traditional perception of wearable fragrance doesn’t mean it won’t give us pleasure,’ Crames says. ‘Most people find our “Dirt” cologne grounding, addictive, and incredibly sexy.’

The creation of perfume is still a rarified craft. There are more astronauts in the world than perfumers. And if I asked you to close your eyes and imagine what a master perfumer should look like, you’d probably come up with someone like Roja Dove, whose luxurious array of Hermès silk cravats and gobstopper-sized jewelled rings are as flamboyant as his £250-a-bottle titular scents. Blindfolded, Roja Dove can identify up to 800 different scents.  ‘A few years ago, I was asked to create “the smell of sex” for an exhibition at the Barbican,’ he tells me. ‘I made a blend that combined beeswax and civet. Whenever I gave it to someone to smell, I said, “Wait a while and you’ll smell the scent of crotch.” Whether male, female, gay or straight, people always said, “Oh, yes,” quickly followed by, “I rather like it.”’ 

Master Perfumer Roja Dove

The fact that ‘we smell with the most primitive part of the brain’, according to  Dove, explains why our olfactory tastes can be pretty primitive too. Forget rose petals and freshly cut grass; some of the most pleasurable notes in the fragrances we love have pretty revolting origins. Civet musk – an ingredient of Chanel No 5 – comes from the anal glands of a civet cat. ‘On its own, it smells like animal faeces,’ says perfume designer Azzi Glasser, who has worked with Illamasqua, Bella Freud and Topshop. ‘But when it’s in a scent it can smell extremely sexy.’ There are also certain fragrances which women find more pleasurable than men. A woman’s sensitivity to musk, for example, is about 1,000 times stronger than a man’s, so when you spray a musk-based perfume on yourself, it essentially has a ‘how hot am I?’ effect. Though does this then make you feel sexier and therefore seem outwardly more attractive? Probably. 

Read More: How To Find A Scent That Suits You

In her book Scent And Subversion, writer and perfume expert Barbara Herman talks about a shift in the early 90s away from animal-derived ingredients to so-called ‘clean’ citrus-based fragrances, like that old unisex favourite CK One. ‘Many perfumes in this era,’ she writes, ‘no matter how beautiful or technically interesting, seemed to have erased away imperfections – the things deliberately put into perfumes in earlier eras to give them notes that referenced the body.’ But a lot of these animal scents are what give perfume that lustier, decadent bouquet – even though (thank god) we’re not sniffing them and thinking ‘mmm, cat bum’.

A lot of recently released fragrances – such as DKNY’s MYNY – contain ambrox, a synthetic version of ambergris, a grey waxy substance produced in the intestinal tract of a sperm whale, which in its raw form smells like manure. The celebrity fragrance market isn’t all fresh, clean notes either. ‘I really like B.O,’ Sarah Jessica Parker said when she was asked about the inspiration for her perfumes Lovely and Covet. ‘I think it’s sexy.’ SJP also raised eyebrows when she said she also liked the smell of dirty nappies, but it would seem those strange olfactory tastes have struck a chord; Lovely is one of the biggest selling fragrances of all time.  

Sarah Jessica Parker and her fragrance Lovely

A few years ago, researchers at Charles University in Prague discovered that we choose our perfume not to mask but to complement our own body odour. Which is probably why that bottle of perfume you gave your sister-in-law last Christmas is still sitting unopened on her bathroom shelf. The only person who can pick the sexiest perfume for you is you. Just as we pick a fragrance to match our own odour – sort of like matching the wine to the main course – evidence suggests women also pick their partner based primarily on how they smell. Professor Herz says this is because our body odour indicates the health of our immune system and the compatibility of another person’s with your own. ‘Women are invested in finding a partner to mate with who will ensure the greatest health possibilities for the child she’s going to conceive.’

To speed the process along, a woman’s sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger when she’s ovulating. In 2009, a study by Rice University in Texas even found a woman can tell a man is attracted to her by the scent of his sweat. When I first met my husband six years ago I loved catching a little whiff of his aftershave (Davidoff Cool Water), but what I was probably picking up was a cocktail of that aftershave combined with his natural scent. 

For all single men reading this wondering if they should up their eau de toilette ante, Herz makes the point that there is no ‘Brad Pitt of scent’ – all of us will have a smell that someone out there finds pleasurable. You know that quote from Hamlet, ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’? This is never truer than with fragrance. There are no intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ smells; rotten garbage smells bad and roses smell good due to the learned association that one is dirty and one is pleasant. ‘We learn to smell during our development,’ says Thierry Audibert, head of fragrance, science and technology for Givaudan, the £10 billion Swiss company that supplies fragrances to everyone from perfume houses to washing powder companies. How we learn to smell is heavily influenced by culture. ‘In the Mediterranean, for example, the scent of orange flowers has a particular emotional response that it wouldn’t have elsewhere,’ says Audibert. Herz backs up this point in her book by discussing the cultural disparity between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ smells. The scent of a cheese toastie might say ‘cosy Sunday evening in’ to some, but a lot of Chinese people – many of whom have been found to find the smell of cheese repulsive – wouldn’t agree.

But is there one single fragrance out there that everyone – whatever country, time or culture they happen to be from – is programmed from their earliest moments to find pleasurable? Well actually, there is. And it’s vanilla. Why? Vanilla is the dominant scent of breast milk and formula, indelibly linked to nurture and early feelings of security. And no surprises it’s a key ingredient in some of the biggest-selling fragrances of all time, from Guerlain’s Shalimar to Chanel No 5.  Oh, and it just so happens to be a base note of a certain Lynx body spray my old boyfriend used to wear…