Smells pique emotions, can invoke comfort and nostalgia

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A study by the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation found that the odor that evoked nostalgia the most was the smell of baked goods. |

As the seasons change, so do the smells of your environment. And according to research, all those new aromas can bring on a variety of emotions.

“This time of year, the aroma that so often people describe is pumpkin spice,” said Dr. Alan Hirsch, neurological director for the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. “That smell brings a sense of home, and in some cases, can bring great comfort.”

Hirsch has conducted many studies over the years regarding smells and the impact they have on the brain. If you’re stressed out, lavender will help. Need to focus? Get some peppermint, and you’ll be more alert. Even kids who are studying for that test and need to concentrate can benefit from aromatherapy.

“There are a number of odors that enhance learning and wakefulness,” said Hirsch. “We found a mixed floral smell increased speed of learning by 17%.”

Another study conducted by Hirsch’s team focused on olfactory –– the sense of smell –– evoked nostalgia, which are the odors that make people nostalgic for their childhood.

“We looked at 989 people from 45 states in 39 countries,” said Hirsch, who concluded the number one odor to trigger olfactory evoked nostalgia was “the smell of baked goods.”

Results of the study also varied by age and region. Participants from the East Coast were nostalgic over the smell of flowers, while those from the South liked fresh air, Midwesterners preferred the smell of farm animals, and people from the West Coast wanted barbecue. Older people preferred smells from the outdoors like trees, horses, burning wood or pine, and people from the younger population got more nostalgic for the artificial scents such as Play-Doh, Pez, SweeTARTS and Vicks VapoRub.

Overall, Hirsch said we should not discount the power of smell and how it can impact our moods. And it’s easier than ever to get our favorite scents in our environment.

“Now they make plug-in diffusers that you can put in the office or the home,” Hirsch said. “Or you could really go old school and just get the food that you like. If you really like green apple, get a bowl of them and put them on the counter. If you love pumpkin pie, put one in the oven so the odor can travel through the house.”

If you’re having company, Hirsch suggests having baked goods on the menu such as chocolate chip cookies or pound cake.

“And that old adage of baking a pie when you’re trying to sell your house is true,” Hirsch said. “If someone feels nostalgic for their childhood when they’re walking through your house, they may be more likely to buy it.”

Here are some other scent-related findings from the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation.


“We did research where we put people in coffin like tubes and infused different odors,” Hirsch said. “When you put people in a coffin, they become very claustrophobic, so if you infuse the smell of green apple, it reduces the degree of anxiety.”


“We found that smelling food odors helped to induce people to feel fuller and thus, they ate less,” Hirsch said. “The idea is that by smelling the food all day long, it’s almost fooling the brain in to thinking you’ve eaten it, therefore, you eat less of it. You talk to people who work at a candy counter and then they don’t want to eat candy at the end of the day. The belief is that when you’re exposed to it all day long, you saturate the receptors, thus making you feel full and you have less of a desire to eat.”


“Lavender increases alpha waves in the EEG (electroencephalogram) of the back of the head which tends to increase the more relaxed state.” Hirsch said. “And you have to be sure there are no bad odors when you’re trying to sleep. One thing we found is that bad odors can increase not only weight gain, but also aggression. So practice cleanliness and be sure your sheets are clean and your house has a pleasant odor if you’re suffering from sleeplessness.”

Sexual Arousal

“When we looked at the impact of the pumpkin smell, it really affected male sexual arousal,” said Hirsch. “Combining pumpkin with lavender, and that was number one. Number two (for sexual arousal) was donuts and black licorice and number three was the combination of pumpkin pie and donuts.”

As for the women, “The number one scent for female sexual arousal was a combination of Good & Plenty candy and cucumber. Although Good & Plenty and banana-nut bread was a close second,” he said.

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