Emotive: The science behind how scent evokes emotion

Emotive: The science behind how scent evokes emotion

By Cristina Bagozzi

Have you ever wondered why you can’t “fake” your reaction to something you smell in the same way you can "control" your reaction to something you see or hear?

Think back to a recent scent experience (be it vanilla ice cream or burnt rubber) and try to recall your reaction to it. Whether positive or negative, chances are your response was instant, visceral and out of your intellectual control.

Why is this, you may wonder? The answer to this question is precisely what makes our sense of smell so unique, powerful and emotive – capable of arousing a profound emotional response (and the inspiration behind the brand name EMMOTIV).

In this 4-part article, I break down the science behind the fascinating link between emotion and scent and how we can use scent as a tool for emotional well-being:

  1. PART 1 explains how our sense of smell is fundamentally different from our other senses and how this difference (a direct link to the "emotion-control" area of the brain) gives it its unique emotive powers.
  2. PART 2 unpacks how our sense of smell physically works – how scent molecules interact with our nervous system to reach the brain and evoke emotion.
  3. PART 3 explores what we do and don't know about how and why specific scent molecules amplify specific emotions.
  4. PART 4 explains how EMMOTIV fragrances are designed to harness the power of scent to amplify emotions we crave – from calm to joy – and how they are different from traditional aromatherapy.

Author’s Note: This topic can easily become laden with neuroscience terms. In this article, my intention is to draw a rough sketch of the connection between scent and emotion, rather than a detailed blueprint. While it may still feel complex at times, I promise it's worth reading through the end if you've ever been carious about this topic. I’ve also included links to further reading throughout the article for all who wish to dive even deeper.


First, let’s unpack how our sense of smell is literally wired differently from our other senses….

When we see, touch, taste or hear something, the information from that sensorial experience travels to a part of the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus is like a “distribution center” for sensory information and plays a role in assessing and “routing” that information to the appropriate “final” destination in the cerebral cortex. (Often referred to as our “thinking brain”, the cerebral cortex is responsible for higher-level processing of everything from language to personality.)

However, when we smell something, the information from that experience usually bypasses the thalamus and travels directly to the amygdala. The amygdala is the “emotion control center” of the brain and is responsible for processing emotions.

This direct link between our sense of smell and the amygdala, the "emotion control center" of the brain, is precisely what makes our sense of smell so powerfully emotive, and different from our other senses.

This direct route between our sense of smell and the amygdala is likely the result of evolution. The amygdala, along with other areas of the brain like the hippocampus, are part of the limbic system. Often referred to as the “ancient brain”, our limbic system was one of the first to develop from a evolutionary standpoint, playing a crucial role in survival by alerting our ancestors to predators and pleasures alike.

Discovery Magazine offers this explanation: "Smell is one of the most rudimentary senses with roots in the way single-celled organisms interact with the chemicals around them, so it has the longest evolutionary history. This also might explain why we have at least 1,000 different types of smell receptors but only four types of light sensors and about four types of receptors for touch."

Note: In addition to the amygdala, information from our sense of smell also travels to the hippocampus, which is located in close proximity to the amygdala and plays a crucial role in the storage and processing of memories. The link between scent and memory is a related and fascinating topic I will explore in a future blog post.


So what physically happens when we smell something? Here is a simplified sequence of events…

  1. When we "smell" something, our nose intercepts and “breathes in” microscopic odor molecules (airborne particles) of the substance (be it a wild rose, fresh-baked bread, diesel exhaust, or a perfume).
  2. Once these odor molecules reach the top of the nasal cavity, they are intercepted by "olfactory receptor neurons" (a.k.a. "olfactory sensory neurons") that line the inside of the nose. These cells' job is to sense odor molecules. Different odors stimulate different combinations of these neurons. So the odor of vanilla ice cream and vanilla concentrate are each represented by different combinations of neurons.
  3. This odor information (the unique combination of neurons) from the substance is then converted from chemical into electrical signals. These signals then travel along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb in the brain, where the brain deciphers the smell (i.e. tags it as "vanilla ice cream"). Scientists estimate that humans can detect as many as ten thousand unique "smells," but it could be more. One study suggests humans could distinguish as many as 1 trillion different odors.
  4. The olfactory bulb then transmits the identified odor information to different parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which associates the aroma to a specific emotion or combination of emotions. The mechanisms at play here are complex and still in the early stages of scientific research. 


Which brings us to the trillion dollar question: how and why do certain scent molecules evoke specific emotions?

Our understanding of the mechanisms that link specific scent molecules to specific mood states is still in infancy. In fact, our sense of smell is one of the least studied of all our senses. (Unfortunately, it is also the sense we are most likely to take for granted. As reported in this New York Times article, a survey of about 400 American adults found that most people would give up their sense of smell over their other senses.)

And although research into this field of neuroscience is gaining momentum given it's profound link to emotional well-being, most independent studies we have today exist only at the “scent” level. 

In other words, we have research showing that specific scent molecules (i.e. those associated with cedarwood) can have a distinct impact on mood (i.e. help calm and relax), but the "how" and "why" of this correlation remains a mystery. 

To illustrate the point, below are just a few examples of specific aromas and the emotions they have been shown to amplify through independent research studies. Some of these may be familiar to you as they are widely used in aromatherapy for their mood-elevating properties. 

While the connections between specific aromas and emotions might be partly explained through earlier formation of memories in the presence of those aromas, this might be an oversimplification of the complex mechanisms at play. 

For one, we know certain scents go beyond mood-elevating properties to also exhibit physiological effects. As explained in this study: "Lavender oil showed a sedative effect, [while] peppermint and coffee showed a stimulating effect, as shown [in an] electroencephalogram."

Any students looking for a fascinating field of study with immense potential for enhancing emotional well-being? Look no further.

Note: The study of how different aromas affect mood and emotion is called aromachology – not to be confused with aromatherapy, which refers to the therapeutic practice of using botanical extracts (typically in the form of essential oils) to influence specific emotions. 


How EMMOTIV harnesses the emotive power of scent in the fragrance development process.

EMMOTIV fragrances are thoughtfully designed to celebrate and help amplify emotions we crave – from joy to calm – by tapping into the emotive power of scent described above.

Created in collaboration with iconic perfumers, each Eau de Parfum in our collection is constructed around carefully-selected aromas (or "notes") linked to different mood states. For example, one of the key scent notes in EMMOTIV Joy Rush Eau de Parfum is bergamot oil, thanks to its uplifting properties. 

However, unlike traditional aromatherapy, which offers a more linear olfactive experience, often concentrated around a few essential oils, EMMOTIV fragrances wear, layer and feel like perfumes intentionally designed to offer an indulgent, expressive olfactive experience that fuses the mood-elevating benefits of aromatherapy with the art of perfumery.

In that sense, you can think of EMMOTIV fragrances more like complex paintings rather than monochromatic canvases. For example, in EMMOTIV Joy Rush, bergamot oil is analogous to the happy yellow hued paint that creates the foundation for the painting. But the final piece of art is a tapestry of colors and brushstrokes that give it a unique personality. 

I invite you to discover all our debut mood-elevating fine fragrances here, each one named after the emotion it amplifies: Calm Soul, Cozy Reverie, Joy Rush, and Love Euphoric. 

Through each scent, you will experience artfully-curated layers of mood-elevating notes and complementary aromas that invite you to incorporate the fragrance into your daily rituals as both a functional and indulgent tool for well-being.

All EMMOTIV fragrances are clean, vegan, cruelty-free and offer fragrance ingredient transparency (rare in the space). Learn more about our ingredient policy here.


About the author

Cristina Bagozzi is the founder and owner of EMMOTIV, a brand dedicated to amplifying the beauty of human emotion through the art of scent. Learn more at emmotiv.com.

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