The Sexy Science Of Scent

There is a science to scent. Yet, pinpointing what causes human behavior after inhalation still reads like romantic sci-fi, and maybe science can't always just figure it all out. The heart wants what it wants. It will follow its nose to find the connection with the one emotion we endured before we had a recollection. 

The unsexy, logical side of scent is that it is simply the result of our brains interpreting vaporized molecules coming together. And when we want to better understand an object's tangible physical or emotional attributes, we give it a name. Perhaps, what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," is that we should stop naming scents and start feeling them. 

The sexy side of scent is that it makes us feel things. Scent bubbles emotions to the surface, triggers nostalgic memories, and therapeutically releases experiences that no longer serve us. It is a multifaceted, primal sense that guides our emotional intelligence to set us free from our linear left-brain.   

For instance, to some people a rose may simply smell like a red flower with thorns, while to someone else a rose smells like the blanket their mother hand-knitted for them as a child. Scientifically speaking, both interpretations are correct, as scent is subjective, connected to an internal experiential database that has been subconsciously collecting since the moment we had our first scent exchange with our mother. 

When scent is inhaled, tiny molecules travel through the nose at lightning speed into the olfactory system. This is the part of the brain where memories are stored. Scent molecules land on the olfactory epithelium, a group of hundreds of nerves that read odor molecules. The nerves process the information and then send a message to the brain. These messages pass through the frontal lobe, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex, then head back to the olfactory cortex for recognition.

Memory and emotions are stored in the limbic system, while intellect is stored in the cerebral cortex. Scent travels through the most primitive centers of our brain, and is a benchmark for understanding the mind-body connection. 

Our sense of smell also has a strong influence on our mood and behavior. As one of our primal senses, scent may send us signals of sexual attraction. However, the idea of sex pheromones, according to some scientists, is a self-serving myth, and has been in constant debate since its announcement at a conference in Paris in 1991. On that note, the idea that chemical compounds are used to communicate between species was, in fact, first introduced in 1959 by Peter Karlson and Martin Lüsher. Although the specific pheromone responsible for attraction has not yet been identified, the pheromone that induces menstrual synchrony among women is being studied for the possibility of creating a scent contraceptive.  

Scent is complex, and training the nose to distinguish the difference between fragrance and essential oil is inevitably difficult. With chemists blurring the lines by isolating single constituents known to be the dominant compound in a particular scent, and adulterating essential oils with scent-enhancing containments, uncovering what is a true, authentic scent is prohibitive but possible, especially through GC/MS Technology.  

As we develop our olfactory learning, release visceral reactions linked to scent, and dive deep into plant chemistry to explain why a flower smells the way it does, we find that a rose has the ability to smell like an ordinary flower with thorns, a mother’s loving warmth, the dominant chemical compound citronellol, or all of the above. While science may not yet explain everything about our sense of smell, we know that scent intimately brings us back to our feel good emotion of love and protection.