Using the Power of Smell to Step Outside Your Comfort Zones

"What-when-and-where" smell memories can facilitate openness to new experiences.

Posted Aug 03, 2018

 Photo by Christopher Bergland
These fragrances from Christopher Bergland's collection represent a timeline of "what-when-and-where" smell memories. In chronological "time in a bottle" order, these fragrances include: Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior (1966), Polo by Ralph Lauren (1978), Eau d'Orange Verte by Hermès (1979), Eau d'Hadrien by Annick Goutal (1981), Quorum by Antonio Puig (1982), L'Eau du Caporal by L'Artisan Parfumeur (1985), Lime, Basil & Mandarin by Jo Malone London (1991), and Royall Rugby by Royall Lyme of Bermuda (2011).
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Like any perfume, cologne, or eau de toilette—this blog post is composed of three elements that could be viewed as top notes, heart notes, and base notes. The goal is to harmoniously blend a triad of (1) the latest empirical neuroscience-based research on mindset and olfaction; (2) explore the link between music and ‘what-when-and-where’ smell memories based on anecdotal storytelling; (3) show you how to encode specific scents in a way that will give you the tools to use the power of smell to step outside your comfort zone and seize the day. 

The ideas for this August 2018 blog post have been incubating since last spring when I first heard “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)" by Jake Owen on the radio and had vivid flashbacks to being a teenager in the early 1980s. Over Fourth of July, while visiting my family’s farmhouse, I scavenged around in the attic and found an old wooden box full of pungent “powerhouse” colognes I wore (too much of) in my adolescence (e.g., Polo by Ralph Lauren (1979), Quorum by Antonio Puig (1982), and Drakkar Noir by Guy Laroche (1982) along with a well-preserved tube of Bain de Soleil orange gelée sunscreen.

I also found a bunch of albums and 12" dance remixes from high school and college that I played on a turntable over Independence Day with these "time in a bottle" aromas sprayed on my skin for the first time in over three decades. The experience made me feel like a 16-year-old on the 'edge of seventeen' again. And filled me with an urge to go In Search of Lost Time from my youth. (For more see, "Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make it Happen!")

The final ingredient added to my recent odor-driven obsession with “Remembrance of Things Past” was a pioneering study published online July 16, 2018 from the University of Toronto. This research suggests that the anterior olfactory nucleus (AON) may be the seat of spatiotemporal odor memories linked to a specific time and place from the past. In a statement, lead author Afif Aqrabawi from U of T said, "Our findings demonstrate for the first time how smells we've encountered in our lives are recreated in memory. In other words, we've discovered how you can remember the smell of your grandma's apple pie when walking into her kitchen.” 

The ‘top notes’ of this blog post are represented by the scientific study of olfaction. This includes recent research on how the brain stores “what-when-and-where" smell memories and the power of scent to regulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and create optimal states of arousal via the vagus nerve. (For more see, “The Neuroscience of Smell Memories Linked to Place and Time,” and “Aromatherapy Alleviates Anxiety Via Your Vagus Nerve.")

The 'heart notes' of this post are based on the universal link between music and fragrance. In a short bio of the legendary “nose” Annick Goutal (1946-1999), the Perfume Society said, “Music and fragrance speak the same language: they’re composed of notes, harmonies – and the finished ‘juice’ we take such pleasure in is known as a ‘composition.’ So it’s not so surprising that Annick Goutal – who dedicated her early life to playing the piano, with the dream of being a pianist – should turn, instead, to creating perfumes (which today are loved around the world).”

Adolescence is a time in life when our sensitivity to forming ‘what-when-and-where’ memories linked to music and distinct smells is particularly ripe. Think back to your high school years. Are there any particular songs or smells linked to a time and place that tug at your heartstrings? To help jog your memory, here is a quick, three-step exercise: First, add the four digits of your birth year plus 16. Second, using this number, start to explore the Billboard Chart History archives online and click on the decade and specific year that you were sixteen using the drop-down menu. As an example, because I was born in ‘66, I added 1966 + 16 = 1982. This Hot 100 Chart History is like an adolescent time capsule for me.

Lastly, try to recall the name of any particular smells from this era that you can pinpoint such as the cologne or perfume worn by you or a teenage crush. Is there a soap, shampoo, sunscreen, or laundry detergent with a specific scent that you can recall as being linked to a particular time and place from your youth? 

I’ve been a full-fledged fragrance fanatic since the summer of 1982, when I spent a semester abroad in Spain. As a sixteen-year-old, I doused myself with nose-blind amounts of a gutsy cologne by Antonio Puig called “Quorum.” If it was possible to capture the bold, adventurous, and extroverted character traits of Don Quixote, being a conquistador, and having cojones in a bottle—it would smell like Quorum.

In 'Verano Ochenta y Dos,’ when I was in Spain, it seemed like everybody on the Studio-54 size dance floor at Joy Eslava discotheque in Madrid smelled like Quorum. This scent—combined with dance music of the era—influenced our collective consciousness and seemed to make people from different countries who gathered at this international hot spot more open to new experience and meeting strangers from far away lands. (For more see: “Dance Songs Dissolve Differences That Divide Us.”) 

Thinking back on this time in my life fills me with one regret: I’d like to apologize to any of my high school classmates who had to sit next to me in class during the fall of 1982, after I'd just gotten home from Spain. Yes, I regularly sprayed my entire body with way too much Quorum cologne. I realize now, as I sniff this vintage bottle again, that everyone must have smelt me and this overpowering cologne from a mile away. But, I can explain myself.... I didn’t want to let go of the freedom and passion I felt that summer. Quorum kept a "spirit of adventure" in the front of my mind and made me curious to explore unfamiliar territories and gave me the "cojones" to face intimidating circumstances. 

Jack & Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp spent four weeks at number one in October of 1982 and was constantly on the radio that year. As a 16-year-old at the time, I took the advice held in the lyrics of this song personally: “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can. Changes come around real soon, make us women and men. Oh yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of living is gone,” became my mantra. I was terrified of getting old and falling into the ho-hum rut that I identified with being a “grown-up.”

Earlier this year, as a 52-year-old now, the downside of getting older portrayed in “Jack & Diane” started to feel like a reality in my day-to-day life. I fell into a cynical “Is that all there is?” funk or what some might call an "Eriksonian Midlife Crisis” marked by a distinct feeling of stagnation and gut-feeling that the “thrill of living” was gone.

Luckily, because part of me is still a teenager trapped in a middle-aged man’s body, I've had a lot of "theory of mind" practice putting myself in the shoes of the protagonists in pop music songs and “mirroring” the mindset and aura of my favorite performers. (For more see, "Empathic People Use Social Brain Circuitry to Process Music.")

When I first heard "I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” by Jake Owen last March, it took me right back to 1982. The song reminded me of being sixteen, triggered my commitment to go "In Search of Lost Time," and sparked my recent effort to get back some of the carefree joie de vivre of my youth. That said, I’ve been rooting for this song to be a smash hit. And, I’m thrilled to report that for the week of August 4, 2018 (after 22 weeks on the charts) this song is No. 1 on the Billboard Charts for country airplay! It’s the perfect summer anthem.

In the video above, Jake Owen sings, “It was yesterday, it was years ago. We were singin’ every word on the radio. Kind of like them songs could save our souls. Somehow, some way. Do you turn it up? Do you sing along? Every time you hear that song. Like you did then. Like we did when. Do you close your eyes? Does it make you laugh? Do the memories take you back? Where has the time gone? But I hope like hell, every now and again, I blow across your mind like that summer wind. And you're holding on to sixteen as long as you can. Every time that song comes on.” At the end of this short film adaptation of the song, the teenage sweethearts who graduated high school in 1982, meet up decades later and finally decide to step out of the comfort zone of their small hometown and go out to explore the world with an openness to new experiences.

At the end of the video for "I Was Jack (You Were Diane)," Jake Owen scribbles, “John [Mellencamp], Thanks for building the highways we’ve been traveling on, and providing the soundtrack to the lives of so many small-town kids like me.” -Jake

If there is a musical performer I’d like to thank for providing a soundtrack to my life, it would be Madonna. After returning from my life-affirming summer in Spain, part of my commitment to making sure I stayed young at heart was to continue to go out dancing.

In 1983, I got to see Madonna perform live in a small dance club before she was famous and it changed my life. In the book acknowledgments to The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss I wrote: “Thank you [Madonna] for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.” 

As the 'base note' of this blog post, my goal is to show you how to encode specific scents with a growth mindset that will give you the courage to step outside your comfort zone and seize the day. This is something Madonna inadvertently taught me how to do back in ‘89 when I was 23. 

On the first day of spring in 1989, Madonna released her Like a Prayer album. At the time, I was living on Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district of the West Village. I waited tables at Benny’s Burritos on Greenwich Avenue to make ends meet and regularly took to the streets in nonviolent civil disobedience as a member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). People in my neighborhood were wasting away and dying all around me in the 10014 zip code. AIDS was decimating my community. Like everyone, I was terrified. And the government wasn’t doing anything to help us. 

 Photo by Christopher Bergland
Madonna released her “Like a Prayer” album on March 21, 1989, at the peak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The first edition of this patchouli-scented album included a public health insert that gave “The Facts About AIDS” and an urgent call to action, “People with AIDS—regardless of their sexual orientation—deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry.”
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

In the late-’80s, there was so much stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS that most politicians wouldn’t even say these acronyms. The subject was completely taboo in mainstream America. As someone who is still alive and kicking in the 21st century, I am eternally grateful to Madonna for having the courage to include an “AIDS Fact Sheet” in every audio cassette, CD, and vinyl record of the Like a Prayer album when she was at the zenith of her career and had so much to lose by speaking out about safe sex. This album spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the spring of ‘89 and has sold over 15-million copies worldwide. 

As if it was yesterday, I can vividly remember the day I went to Tower Records on Broadway and Fourth Street to buy all three formats (CD, Cassette, LP) of the Like a Prayer album. In this pre-digital download era, the music industry was transitioning from only selling vinyl records... the Walkman had fueled the need for cassettes, and CD recordings were the latest state-of-the-art technology. So, the multi-leveled Tower Records store used different floors and variously shaped bins for vinyl records, factory-made tapes, and compact discs. Anticipation was great for the release of the new Madonna record and Tower Records had boxes of them at the front door on March 21, 1989. 

When I came through the revolving door of Tower Records that morning, I was instantly hit by the potent smell of patchouli, which seemed really out of place in this retail environment. My roommate and all of my Grateful Dead friends at Hampshire College had worn lots of patchouli, so the smell was familiar to me. But, I didn’t understand why Tower Records wreaked of this earthy essential oil until I got my hands on the Like a Prayer album. Apparently, Madonna had convinced Sire Records/Warner Bros. to spray the liner notes of every Like a Prayer cassette, LP, and CD to create an olfactory memory linked to the music on the album. Brilliant concept!

Anecdotally, I heard a rumor that Madonna created the songs for this album with co-writer and producer Patrick Leonard at a time and place when patchouli filled the air. This morning, I took this album out of a protective sleeve and 29-years-later it still smells like patchouli. Wow!

In a Proustian way, smelling the distinctive type of patchouli that was sprayed onto the paper in this album brought back sensory-rich memories that transported me back in time to March of 1989 when I peeled off the plastic wrap to open up the cassette and my fingertips were instantly covered with the smell of patchouli. After leaving Tower Records, I headed over to Printing House gym and listened to Side A of the cassette on the sundeck by the pool. Then, I decided to go for a run on the treadmill overlooking the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty. Because of this sequence of events, I was wearing sunscreen at the time. The uplifting, 'clear blue skies,’ summery smell of Coppertone mixed with the grounded earthiness of the patchouli on my fingertips and hit a sweet spot. 

The combination of Coppertone and patchouli made me feel both exuberant and laid back at the same time. I realize now that this psychophysiological state in my autonomic nervous system was probably the result of a perfect balance of tranquilizer-like “vagusstoff” (acetylcholine) which triggers the “relaxation response” of the parasympathetic nervous system balanced with the rush of adrenaline or epinephrine that drives fight-or-flight of the sympathetic nervous system. 

Through the lens of aromatherapy, the key to using the power of smell to step outside your comfort zone is to encode a scent with a time-and-place that makes you feel safe and happy. Then, once this “odor engram” is locked into your AON, you can trick your nervous system into staying calm, cool, and, collected as you head into uncharted territories that scare you to death. 

Odor Engrams: "You’ve Got the Power to Make Me Feel Good . . . And it Feels Like Home"  

I first made the connection between “what-when-and-where’ smell memories, music, and dialing up a seize-the-day attitude on demand the day I got my hands on the patchouli-laced Like a Prayer album in the spring of 1989. Side A of the record starts with "Like a Prayer" and "Express Yourself," which are anthems of transcendence and authentic self-expression. Side B of the album begins with the song “Cherish,” which, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated pop songs of all time. 

The first time I heard "Cherish," back in 1989, I was running full-throttle on a treadmill at the Printing House gym in lower Manhattan overlooking diamondesque sparkling water on the Hudson River in the shadow of the Twin Towers. The combination of (1) Madonna music blasting in my headphones; (2) sweat streaming from my pores; (3) the smell of patchouli and Coppertone wafting through the air felt like ecstasy. I said to myself, “I don’t ever want the fullness of this bliss to end.”

Over the next 15 years, I would hold on to this feeling by using these three key ingredients to create a target mindset and openness to new experience that allowed me to step outside my comfort zones and travel the world competing in Ironman Triathlons as an ultra-endurance athlete. 

The only aspect of doing an Ironman in places like South Africa or Australia that filled me with crippling anxiety was the 2.4-mile open water swim in shark-infested waters. Since the age of nine, when I saw JAWS (1975), the smell of Coppertone prior to swimming in salt water causes an involuntary olfactory-auditory memory of John Williams’ soundtrack and seeing myself in the third person from the vantage point of a great white shark below. 

To face this fear head on, prior to every open-water ocean swim, I purposely layered new scents on top of the Coppertone sunscreen and made sure my pre-race soundtrack included “Cherish” and visualizations of the “mermen” in Herb Ritts’ classic video. (Tragically, Ritts died of HIV-related complications in 2002, at age 50.)

Throughout the open-water swim, to keep the musical score from JAWS out of my head, I’d hum "Cherish" and kick in rhythm to the metronome-like backbeat of this song, which is a perfect cadence for long-distance swimming.

At the starting line of every Ironman Triathlon, I’d spray a few spritzes of Coppertone near my neckline, put a few drops of patchouli on my wrist, and walk through a sprayed mist of mother’s signature scent from the 1980s which is a unisex fragrance by Annick Goutal called "Eau d'Hadrien." This fragrance has a very bright, citrus smell that always boosts my mood and makes my autonomic nervous system sing. These smells also remind me of safety, security, and the womb-like feeling of home. So, when I was in far away places, I learned through trial-and-error that this combination of smells was like a talisman that reminded me that getting through this part of the journey was key to living out my “monomyth.”

 Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851
Christopher Bergland used the power of smell to step out of his comfort zone and accomplish athletic feats such as running 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley in July at the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Source: Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851

After over a decade of pushing beyond my limits, traveling around the globe, and seeking out the most daunting athletic challenges on the planet—such as running 135-miles through Death Valley in July or completing the Triple Ironman in 38 hours and 46 minutes of non-stop running, biking and swimming—I started to get bored. There was no place else to go, and I was getting a little long in the tooth. As a grand finale, I decided to try to break a world record back at home in a small retail store around the corner from my East Village apartment called "Kiehl's."

 Photo by Christopher Bergland
On April 29-30, 2004, Christopher Bergland broke a Guinness World Record by using a blend of specific scents from his past while blasting Shep Pettibone remixes of Madonna classics such as "Like a Prayer," "Express Yourself," and "Vogue."
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Thankfully, my guardian angel at Kiehl's, Abbie Schiller, helped organize and name the "treadathlon" event so Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes and I could run side-by-side for 24-hours nonstop, while raising money for the YouthAIDs nonprofit organization. Kiehl’s has a long and ongoing philanthropic history of supporting HIV/AIDs research. Every summer, the Harley-Davidson LifeRide event raises money for amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research).

On April 29, 2004, when I set out to break a Guinness World Record, I made sure all my ducks were lined up in a row. That morning, I put on a few dabs of Kiehl’s “Indian Vintage” patchouli, sprayed on some Annick Goutal and Coppertone (from a discreet label-free bottle), and cued up lots of Shep Pettibone remixes of Madonna music. My dear friend and soulmate Nikki Haran (1969-2016) was in charge of all the music. In my mind’s eye, I was mirroring Madonna’s exuberant “out-of-body” Like a Prayer performance from the Blond Ambition tour and Truth or Dare (1991 ) in the video below during the entire 24-hour run.

The key to using the power of smell to step outside your comfort zones is to identify a specific odor that “feels like home” and reminds you of the warm, cozy, safe-and-sound feeling you get when you "remember the smell of your grandma's apple pie when walking into her kitchen.”

The second important aspect of this smell is that it should be “hedonic.” Meaning that it has the power to make you feel good. Obviously, from an evolutionary standpoint, we are hardwired to avoid things that smell bad and seek scents associated with pleasure and reward. 

This odor engram that best facilitates openness to new experience should blend top notes, heart notes, and base notes that facilitate an autonomic nervous system (ANS) profile that gives you the get-up-and-go to seize the day with grace under pressure.

Earthy base notes like oakmoss, patchouli, and lavender will help you feel relaxed by reducing fight-or-flight stress responses and improving heart rate variability (HRV). On the opposite end of the spectrum, vibrant citrus-based top notes can make you feel invigorated and boost levels of norepinephrine. The key is to find a ‘Goldilocks’ sweet spot that isn’t too earthy and isn’t too flighty. 

As a specific example, the two fragrances I’m layering on my forearms this summer are Royall Rugby by Royall Lyme of Bermuda and Eau D’Hadrien by Annick Goutal. Alone, each of these fragrances smell too extreme for me. Rugby has robust base notes that border on being too heavy and bring me down. On the flip side, the blend of citrus in Hadrien dissipates too quickly and doesn’t feel grounded. But together, they create a perfect psychophysiological state of PNS-SNS arousal and an ANS profile that facilitates what I call “guts-wits-and-grace under pressure.” 

Lastly, even if you are someone who doesn’t like to wear a fragrance, you can subtly introduce scents into your life that will encode odor engrams and form “what-when-and-where” smell memories.

As an example, because I saturate my workout clothes with sweat on a daily basis, I’m in a constant battle to keep the funky, musty smell of perspiration out of these fabrics. In a New York Times article, “How to Do Laundry,” Jolie Kerr has a section on dealing with ‘odor retention’ and writes, “Tide Odor Rescue, will help to keep your favorite yoga pants or sweat-wicking shirt odor-free without breaking down the material.” A few weeks ago, I took her advice and started using this product. Now, the hard to describe scent of this “odor-free” detergent has created a fresh “what-when-and-where” memory that will forever be linked my athletic adventures during the summer of 2018.

Keep your nose out for any type of odor that might come in handy as a tool for making you feel safe and sound while also giving you the gumption to seek new experiences. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty of these times, or suffer from crippling anxiety, hopefully, some of this advice will help you fine-tune personal ways to combine music and olfaction as a 'security blanket' that gives you enough protection to boldly step outside your comfort zones and seize the day.


Afif J. Aqrabawi & Junchul Kim. "Hippocampal projections to the anterior olfactory nucleus differentially convey spatiotemporal information during episodic odour memory." Nature Communications (Published: July 16, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-05131-6

Wotman, Michael, Joshua Levinger, Lillian Leung, Aron Kallush, Elizabeth Mauer, Ashutosh Kacker. "The efficacy of lavender aromatherapy in reducing preoperative anxiety in ambulatory surgery patients undergoing procedures in general otolaryngology." Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology (First published online: November 8, 2017) DOI: 10.1002/lio2.121   

Bensafi, Moustafa, Catherine Rouby, Vincent Farget, Bernard Bertrand, Michel Vigouroux, and André Holley. "Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Odours: the Role of Pleasantness and Arousal." Chemical Senses (2002) DOI: 10.1093/chemse/27.8.703

Alaoui-Ismaïli, Ouafae, Evelyne Vernet-Maury, Andre Dittmar, Georges Delhomme, and Jacques Chanel. "Odor Hedonics: Connection with Emotional Response Estimated by Autonomic Parameters." Chemical Senses (1997) DOI: 10.1093/chemse/22.3.237