Smell is an ancient sense and our primary sense. Think of early humans, whose stance was closer to the ground to track and analyse surrounding terrain and impending predators; it is hardwired into our DNA.
Through time much has been documented about spiritual practices that anointed fragrant oils to bodies for protection and evocation, by priestesses, monks and initiates, and potent infusions for seduction by Queens on Kings. Even now the 'incense-smelling' rituals of Japan are still in practice.
Interestingly, of all the five senses, when it comes to an aroma, it's hard to describe it without employing or comparing other aromas. We have a rich vocabulary to describe objects and sensations, such as shapes, colour, texture and size while sound has measurement through frequency, volume, pitch and tone and taste has its own descriptive words like salty, sour, sweet and bitter.
Most of our senses are assimilated directly through the Thalamus (the central switchboard of the brain). The olfactory organ (detecting smell) gets processed first via the Limbic system (which stores our emotions and memories) only reaching the Thalamus much later to facilitate it becoming part of our consciousness, our awareness of the smell.
But this picture needs to be completed; many subtle internal and external factors also affect our perception of smell. For example, your smell perception changes when you're hungry. Your DNA can be a factor too, and make you smell blind to certain chemicals. Context can also be influential; for example, agrestic aromas of silage and manure can be off putting to most, but for someone born on a farm familiar and nostalgic. A smell can also be cultural, where Asian cultures prefer lightweight, clean, soft aromas and Middle Eastern sensibilities are for strong, enveloping fragrances.
A smell can also affect our physical health, particularly in the case of synthetic aromas, where people have become highly sensitised in some cases. Conversely, natural essential oils can be of excellent benefit both physically and emotionally in the form of Aromatherapy. We found this first-hand during the Covid 19 pandemic when formulations from the Therapie range, such as Protect Bath & Body Oil and our superhero Crystal Clear Smelling salts, simply flew out to energise and uplift isolated home workers.
It's clear that scent accompanies and influences people through all stages of their life; it spans ethnicity, culture and social status; indeed, all the above could determine the type of odours they encounter. However, as our society becomes more digital, how is the cultural value of scent evolving?