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The Science of Scent

22 August 2017

There’s something curiously humble about the flask-shaped perfume bottle that holds Chanel No. 5. Surprisingly, it never seems to get drowned out by the noise made by more ostentatious designs (Davidoff, anyone?). Possibly because Chanel No. 5 is something akin to a goddess in the world of fragrances. The scent was Coco Chanel’s attempt to capture and bottle the liberated spirit of the flapper during a time where your perfume labelled you as either an upper-class woman or as working class. Fast forward to today, the perfume section of David Jones is chaotic and trying to decide on a scent is as stressful as choosing from the ever-growing variety of bananas at Woolies. Which begs the question, why do we bother with fragrances in the first place?

Is it the effect of celebrity-endorsed packaging on our subconscious? A better question to ask is, how could it not be? Perfume ads, like all ads, appeal to our underlying desires. They muddle what we believe we crave with what we actually crave.

We think we want the perfume, when really we want to be Cara Delevingne. Clearly, there’s no better way to do that than recruiting the celebs. After all, not everyone remembers the name of Tom Ford’s latest fragrance but everyone recalls Delevingne naked in a pool of orchids posing in Ford’s fragrance campaign. And who could ever forget her precursor, Kate Moss, rubbing a rose suggestively over her body in the backseat in the debut of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Parisienne’? Put simply, perfume is commercially successful because it is a sign of status, and for that it has the big names in Hollywood to thank. Without these guest appearances perfume is not a luxury, but little more than smelly water.

Yet, perfume appeals to us in another sense: we like scents because they evoke fond memories. A friend of mine likes to spray herself with a vanilla cupcake fragrance because it reminds her of her grandma’s house after they baked cupcakes. I’m a big fan of ‘Sweet Cinnamon Pumpkin’ because it reminds me of Christmas. Why does odour have such a potent effect on emotion? Because, scientists explain, your sense of smell is more closely linked with the neural areas relating to emotion and memory than any of the other senses. Of course, one must learn to associate an odour with a particular memory, before the smell can become a conditioned stimuli that elicits a particular emotional response each time. This process is called ‘associative learning’. You may, therefore, find the cologne your ex wears particularly distasteful.

Fragrance can be a means of seduction, too. Certain hormones stimulate sexual appetite, these are called pheromones. But where does scent come in to play, you ask? Well, like any hormones, the presence of some internal or external factor is necessary for it to be released. Scent is what triggers the release of these particular hormones. Hence, people will invest in colognes and perfumes with a scent that has the potential to boost sexual desire in a potential mate. Perfumes are powerful in that they prompt or heighten arousal. What each person finds attractive is a personal and variable thing. Unfortunately, this means one is left scratching their head when trying to buy a perfume that might reel in the girl who sits two rows in front of them in their microeconomics tutorial. Yet, there are some smells that appeal to the masses in general. According to Dr Hirsch, an American neurologist, men are extremely responsive to the smell of a baking cinnamon roll. In the game of temptation, visuals aren’t the only thing that are important.

It must be understood that perfume is also used to heighten one’s natural scent. Everyone has a unique odour, scientists claim, and if we have no ulterior motives (i.e. we aren’t planning on seducing anyone anytime soon, or looking for a fragrance that reminds one of the florist shop their parents owned when they were a kid), we will find one that enhances our natural body odour. You might be wondering why people want to enhance scent in the first place. It is simply because we tend to smell more pleasant when we have enhanced our innate body smell, rather than when we impose some distant branded perfume that interacts poorly with our natural scent. Personally, I like to think that our use of perfume is yet another way we seek to find loopholes around the supposed evolutionary advantage of aesthetics – if lipstick can be used to enhance one’s mouth and thus one’s physical beauty, surely perfume and cologne can be used in the exact same manner and purpose.

I’d like to end by shocking you with a bit of history: apparently the French took up perfume as a way of combatting the awful smells of urine and other bodily fluids that clogged the gutters. Crafty, huh?