As we go through our day, we experience different smells that may influence our mood. The average person can recognize and remember about ten thousand aromas and is able to detect scents in infinitesimal quantities. Smell plays a role in our relationships, our moods, and our sense of well-being.
Our ability to smell is carried out by about five or six million cells high up in the nasal passages. The nose is the the main organ of taste as well as smell. The tongue distinguishes sweet, sour, bitter and salty. All other tastes are detected by the olfactory receptors. Women reportedly often have a better sense of smell than men.
People who are depressed, schizophrenic, suffer from migraines or who have very low weight anorexia often have an impaired sense of smell. People who have completely lost their sense of smell are called anosmics. Anosmics may lose interest in food, sex, have difficulty sleeping and feel disconnected from others (Reuben, 2012). By studying anosmics, researchers have learned that many odors affect the pain and temperature-sensitive nerve endings, rather than the olfactory receptors. Some of those “gross” smells are more than annoying, they actually cause us pain.
Our reactions to smells is partially based on the emotions and experiences we associate with smells. Many of our preferences are based completely on our emotional associations. The smell of fire in the fireplace and pine needles is often associated with Christmas and may be pleasant or unpleasant based on the emotions that someone has about that holiday. A cologne worn by someone you love may be soothing while a scent worn by someone you dislike may be unpleasant. Sweat and gasoline smells may be judged as pleasant or unpleasant, depending on your past experiences.
Smells can bring on a flood of memories. Consider the scent of baby powder, pumpkin, burning leaves, cookies baking, sun tan lotion, coconut, and fresh laundry. Maybe you know the scent of your children or someone you love. Houses and cities may have distinctive scents. Sometimes walking into a room may be instantly relaxing because of its smell.
Smells can also bring up unpleasant memories and be triggers for people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
Smells and emotions appear to be linked neurologically. Olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, which is believed to be the seat of emotion. It is also associated with memory. We experience an emotional response before we are able to label the emotions. Thus certain smells may be soothing at a very basic level.
Consider the smells in your home. Are there smells you enjoy? Smells that are comforting? While it’s not practical to bake cookies everyday or buy fresh flowers, you can purchase scents that you love as a part of self-comfort. Paying attention to smells may be a way to improve your mood.
Note to Readers
If you are emotionally sensitive, please consider taking my survey about understanding loneliness. I appreciate your time and your contribution to better understanding emotional sensitivity.
Rubin, Gretchen. Happier At Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. New York: Crown, 2012.
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Last reviewed: 1 Dec 2012