People, Places, and Things

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

Scenting for Success

Apply recent research on scents to enhance your life.

Selecting a scent, whether it’s to spritz in a room or on yourself, can be tricky.  The findings of recent scientific studies can take the guesswork out of creating a smell-scape that works for you.

In general, being around scents we judge as pleasant enhances our mood and encourages us to think more broadly. That’s great when we’re trying to be creative or get along with others, for example.

We all have memories linked to particular smells. Maria Larsson’s work indicates that a lot of those reminiscences are intense emotionally and locked in when we’re about five years old. Scientists have found, however, some general patterns in how our experiences are apt to be influenced by particular odors, and that people do not necessarily need to be aware of a scent to have it affect them.

Research has shown that some scents are most likely to reduce anxiety. These include floral odors, in general, particularly the smells of jasmine and hyacinth. The scents of ylang-ylang and mango have also recently been found to be calming. British researchers have confirmed what aromatherapists have been saying for years; smelling lavender is indeed relaxing.

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Particular scents seem to be able to help our brain perform at its best. Enhanced cognitive ability has been linked to the smells of chocolate and coffee. The odor of chocolate or coffee also seems to improve performance on clerical-type work tasks. Smelling rosemary increases alertness and improves long-term memory according to researchers from the United Kingdom. The scent of common garden sage has also been shown to enhance alertness and memory.

Peppermint is a really useful scent. Researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University, lead by Raudenbush, have learned that smelling peppermint improves how well we do tedious, clerical type tasks, as well as the speed at which they are completed. Additional research at the same university with peppermint indicates that its odor improves performance on monotonous athletic tasks while reducing the effort people feel they are expending on them. It has also been linked to feeling more alert and enhanced memory. Smelling peppermint also seems to reduce cravings for cigarettes.

Lemon may be among the most useful scents. It’s calming and has been associated with improved mental performance.  Ballard, O’Brien, Reichelt, and Perry report that dementia patients were less agitated and had an improved quality of life after using a lotion scented with lemon balm. Li, Moallem, Paller, and Gottfried found that when study participants were shown photos of faces with neutral expressions, individuals smelling lemon were likely to rate the people associated with those neutral faces as more likeable than people looking at the same faces who were smelling neural or unpleasant odors.

Put the rigorous research scientists have done to work for you the next time you visit the room freshener aisles, peruse perfume/cologne options, or select essential oils. Use what’s been learned about scents as you craft the life you have planned.

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

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