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Psychology of Scent

According to Luca Turin in his book, ‘The Secret of Scent’, just 3% of the money we pay for a mainstream perfume pays for the fragrance content: the other 97% is the bill for selling us the dream…

Perfume may be the language of dreams, yet scents can influence our behaviour and the choices we make on a daily basis. This is the power of perfume! Recent studies have shown how scent can alter our brain wave patterns, regulate the systems within our body and influence our moods. Indeed, one of the most effective ways to alter our attitude from a negative one into a positive one is through the use of natural fragrances: this is because our sense of smell connects directly to the part of our brain which processes our emotions. According to Maurice Rogers of Dior:

'Scent, even in hard materialistic times like these, still offers a direct route to the unconscious... Perfume is one of the last territories of the irrational. The deep aim of perfumery is to find ingredients that will open new doors…'

Perfume has been in use for over 8,000 years: the word perfume literally means 'through the smoke' from the Latin ‘per fumare’. The burning of fragrant plant substances were the earliest recorded type of perfume, used to purify the air or as an integral part of religious ceremonies: for example, frankincense is still used extensively in the Catholic church. German research in the 1980's has shown that it contains a substance called trahydrocannabinole, which also affects our mood and alters our state of consciousness.

All early perfumes were made wholly from natural ingredients: flowers, aromatic roots, scented gums and spices, together with a small number of products derived from animals such as musk. The first perfumes were called 'unguents', a type of ointment made by simply immersing the aromatic material in an oily or fatty base, which performed a variety of functions. The famous ancient Egyptian perfume, ‘Kyphi’ was a substance which could “lull one to sleep, allay anxiety and brighten dreams … made of those things that delight most in the night” (Plutarch).

The distillation of essential oils is thought to date back to 3,500 B.C. based on primitive clay apparatus found in Mesopotamia but it was not until the 11th century A.D. that the Arab physician and alchemist, Avicenna perfected this art. Modern perfumery was only born in 1830, when cinnamon, aniseed and pine revealed their principal aromatic constituents: cinnamic aldehyde, anethol and borneol. Today, most perfumes are made using similar synthetically produced ingredients, being far cheaper and more predictable than the natural aromatic materials that were formally employed. Now there is a movement towards rediscovering the value of natural fragrances: in ‘Sentimental Journeys’, Weinraub suggests:

“The science of aromatherapy… promises to revolutionize the workplace and the home. In the not too distant future, office ventilation systems might emit aromas that stimulate workers yet help them to relax. Scent machines as elaborate as stereo systems might churn vapours through the home, acting as aphrodisiacs or alarm clocks. And for those on the road a scratch card … might provide an array of aromas to fit conditions from anxiety and claustrophobia to migraine”

For more information about the psychology of fragrance please see ‘Aromatherapy & the Mind: An exploration into the psychological and emotional effects of Essential oils’ by Julia Lawless.