Whether they remind you of your mother’s baking, your first lover’s perfume, your baby’s smell, or the less attractive smells of changing rooms or hospitals. Nowadays it’s the smell of ground coffee and fresh bread in houses for sale.
Yes, smells are very evocative but are they always positive?
10 years ago it was suggested that wearing cologne or a pungent scent could help to improve your athletic performance if coupled with the right winning attitude. Former marine Professor David Collins said; ” scent can help athletes remember moves more accurately and consistently, especially in the face of competition”. Archers given scent to wear as well as using visualisation shot 10% better in experiments.
But was it the scent or the visualisation? And was a placebo effect at work?
Research into aromatherapy oils and reaction times in Germany and Austria found that they had no effect on the brain even though they were supposed to make you more alert. Volunteers had oils sprinkled on face masks and those who rated the smells as stronger did slightly better. The researchers at the University of Munich concluded that the oils probably only work if you believe they will. Unfortunately they didn’t actually massage the oils into the skin, the usual way of using the oils.
Smells aren’t always associated with success. Research at Liverpool University found that people can be driven to fail by certain odours. Volunteers asked to complete impossible tasks were told most people completed it within a given time and were sprayed for 3 minutes with an odour.
Because the task was impossible the volunteers associated the odour with failure and when exposed to it again later did less well on other easier tasks. The psychologist Simon Chu said it was an incredible powerful finding.
It made no difference what kind of odours were involved, even those associated with relaxation had the same effect. But it doesn’t seem so incredible to me as it appears they were just conditioning the participants.
Smells also trigger memories of childhood and perhaps unhappy memories or memories of learning difficult tasks (words apparently trigger memories of late adolescence and early adulthood).