People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

The Smell is Right – Using Scents to Enhance Life

You can use scents to enhance your life.

The way that some thing or some place smells is key to our experience of that object or location. Rigorous scientific research has uncovered specific psychological reactions to particular scents. These responses are generally true for humans, but people who have had a significant (to them) experience while smelling a scent, may not have this most common reaction to a smell. An example: the smell of peppermint is generally physically energizing, but if your mom chewed peppermint gum as she rubbed the younger you's back to help you fall asleep, you will not respond to peppermint as your colleagues do.

Scientists have learned, for example, that:

  • Burning frankincense reduces feelings of depression and anxiety - those mythical Christmas traveling men may have been scent-aware as well as wise.
  • Orange smells reduce anxiety - even in dentists' offices - a place where almost everyone is on edge. Cedar smells reduce tension - and so do lavender ones. Vanilla scents are so good at relaxing people that they've even been used to help people stay calm during CAT scans and similar medical tests. Wearing vanilla-y perfumes to job interviews may provide the advantage that moves wearers into new and desirable jobs.
  • Lemon and jasmine scents enhance our cognitive performance. Doing a hard crossword puzzle or taking the law boards? Suck on lemon drops. People smelling lemon report that they feel better than people smelling other pleasant scents - a scent-sory bonus!
  • Peppermint scents work just like lemon scents - but for the muscles other than those between our ears. If you're working out, forget the lemon drops and slather yourself with peppermint body lotion instead. Your workout will seem easier than it does when you omit the lotion, as well as less frustrating. The hidden bonus of using peppermint scents while working out is that you'll also feel that you are performing better and with more vigor. So, if you aren't a sports star don't worry - smelling peppermint will make you think you're one.
  • Jasmine improves the quality of sleep, but doesn't help you fall asleep any faster. If you smell jasmine while sleeping your mental performance will be improved the next day. You'll also be less anxious when you wake up.
  • Rosemary and grapefruit odors pep people up. Rosemary also makes our long-term memory perform at its best. Cook with rosemary just before you start to do your taxes - it'll help you remember why you saved some of those crumpled receipts. And women of a certain age will be pleased to know that men who are smelling grapefruit estimate that women they're looking at are significantly younger than they actually are.
  • Cinnamon-vanilla smells and creativity seem to be linked.

For these scents to work their special magic, you don't have to consciously notice them.

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The Science of Scent

Smell is deeply connected to our emotional state—and influences our behavior in surprising ways.

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Scientists have worked hard to learn about how the scents noted above, and a whole slew of others, influence us psychologically. Make your life easier by putting what they've learned to work.

Future posts will provide insights on how you can use smells to enhance life experiences.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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