AMYGDALA: HOW WE GOT OUR NAME

Amygdala, Fragrance and emotion, My scent personality, Scent memories, Why do I dislike a smell -

AMYGDALA: HOW WE GOT OUR NAME

 

"Even after two decades I can still remember my mother's perfume just like it was yesterday."

James, 30
Our sense of smell is incredible. No other sense comes close to eliciting raw emotion and poignant memories like scent can. Now it may sound a bit odd, but it probably explains why I enjoy watching people smell things. Whether they’re testing perfumes, smelling flowers in the supermarket, or entering a bakery, people’s visceral reaction to scent is fascinating. From the subtle and subconscious (I swear the smell of cinnamon buns makes people’s eyes twinkle) to the extreme (a girl smelling candy in the M&M’s store: ‘Ohmigod I LOVE it!!!’), scent can move all of us.

 

the smell of cinnamon buns
Cinnamon buns - Food for the soul

Most would agree that scents are hard to describe. We might use imagery (‘smells like a summer’s day’), or compare them to familiar smells (woody, minty, floral), or use evocative words (‘sultry’, ‘opulent’, ‘masculine’). We tend to draw on past associations formed from our own personal experience, to make scent into something tangible and identifiable. Most interestingly, as every individual is moulded by their past experiences, each person’s reaction to a scent is unique to them. Therefore any two random people will carry a differing set of emotions and memories (“emotional baggage”) associated with the same scent, which can result in people reacting very differently to the same smell.

Let me illustrate: I love the smell of lavender; it reminds me of the first holiday I went on with my wife to the South Of France 10 years ago, where the purple stuff is ubiquitous and interminably lovely. It reminds me of warm sunny days and young love. Having said that, a few years back I was chatting to a friendly sales assistant in the Perfumery Hall in Harrods, who admitted he hated the smell of lavender as his incontinent grandmother used it on her clothes to mask the smell of urine.

Lavender at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Chelmsford, UK
harrods store front perfumery

Harrods, Knightsbridge: The Black Hall perfumery is always an experience.

"Frangipani smells like death. Where I grew up in Malaysia, they used these flowers at funerals."

Sunita, 65

"A year after breaking up with my boyfriend I smelt his aftershave in a department store. It was the smell of heartbreak."

Jenny, 33

This highly emotive, personalized reaction we all have to smells is mostly due to the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for processing emotions and memory. Our sense of smell benefits from a direct link to the amygdala, more so than any other sense. So a smell you encounter during an emotionally significant time becomes intertwined with your long-term memory. This is why smells can evoke such vivid past memories or feelings, without any effort.

Most people’s experience of scent tends to be passive. We rely on Brownian motion to effectively distribute whatever fragrance has been released into our environment, before entering our noses uninvited as we fulfill our need to breathe (who decided to lump scent detection in with oxygen collection?!).  As a consequence, our brains are constantly background-filtering this constant bombardment of [mal]odorous molecules; and it is easy to become blunted, almost immune to the cacophony of smells around us.

"I hate it when I smell a perfume I love, on someone I hate. Completely puts me off."

Monica, 27
mri brain showing the amygdala
MRI brain scan. The amygdala is highlighted in red.

 

Translational motion
Brownian motion at work, illustrating the random motion of fragrance molecules (red) as they are bombarded by other molecules in the air (blue).
 
We want people to switch off this passivity to fragrance, and actively engage with their sense of smell; to purposefully converse with their Amygdalae. To appreciate new fragrances, and view familiar ones in a new context. And to discover that by mixing different scents together, possibly even ones you don’t like, you can surprise yourself by creating a fragrance that expresses or evokes something deeply personal to you. And by the way - It’s also bloody good fun.

 

Happy blending.
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