As anybody with a nose knows, smelling a scent is the fastest way to make a memory feel alive again. That’s why certain fragrances (Mom’s chocolate chip cookies, your first love’s cologne) evoke powerful emotions. But can you train your nose to associate specific scents with feelings? Yes, says neuroscientist Rachel Herz, PhD, the author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell—and if you’re willing to put in some effort, you can become more active and aware when it comes to using your sense of smell.
“You only want to use your special nostalgic scents to conjure emotions and memories sparingly,” Dr. Herz says. “If you continuously smell a specific scent, you will both ‘adapt’ and ‘habituate’ to it … you’ll stop being able to detect it well and it will lose its ability to work its emotional and nostalgic magic.” Adaptation happens as you’re smelling a scent—think of how upon initial sniff, a scent is more intense than it is after you’ve been around it for a few minutes. Habituation, Dr. Herz says, happens when you return to a scent again and again. “Both adaptation and habituation occur if you wear the same fragrance every day,” she says. “After about a month, it seems like the genie has left the bottle.”
To give your nose the ability to recognize a favorite scent as “new” again, you’ll need to stop smelling it for a while. After a few weeks, says Dr. Herz, you’ll be able to return to it and once again experience it fully—although, if you want to keep associating a fragrance with a specific memory, it shouldn’t be something you smell regularly. “There is a risk that if you keep smelling that scent in a mundane context, the original emotional meaning and memories it evokes will become somewhat overwritten by the new context you are smelling it in—and the scent will lose some of its original nostalgic power,” Dr. Herz says. Her advice? “Smell your special scent when you really need it and then it will be there for you to conjure a full dose of the emotions and associations you want.”
What if there were a workout… for your nose? In a way, there is. “The more attention we pay to smelling, the more acutely we can smell,” says Dr. Herz. She calls it “smell training,” and the end result may even improve your cognitive capacity. “Smell training is recommended as a cognitive aid to boost memory and cognitive skills as people get older and can even help to mitigate dementia,” she notes.
To start your smell training, she recommends sniffing spices or other scented products in your home. “Think about what each scent means to you and what memories are evoked by it,” she says.
Next, she advises choosing four distinct fragrances to “smell-think” with them every day. This doesn’t need to be a long, involved process—about 30 seconds per scent should do it. (“If you can do it a few times a day,” says Dr. Herz, “it is even better.”) After a few months, begin anew with four new scents.
When you encounter a new scent, Dr. Herz says, you can deliberately create a personal, emotional association with the fragrance. “Use it specifically and purposefully, and only in a certain context,” she says. “For example, get a new perfume to wear for a special vacation, wear that scent every day while you’re on vacation, and then don’t wear it when you get back except when you want to recreate the feelings and memories of that vacation.” Later, when you’re missing that trip, a spritz can make you feel like you’re lying on a beach—even if you’re just stretched out on the sofa.
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