Is the Scent of your Childhood a Natural One?

Posted in Content Beauty

We love a good read, especially if it has a bit of interesting science (that we can quote later) attached. Lately we have been dipping in and out of the fascinating book of essays and research around fragrance and scent. The Smell Culture Reader provides an overview of scent from hygiene to aromatherapy, the traditional to futuristic. Edited by Jim Drobnick an associate professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at the Ontario College of Art and Design (Canada), The Smell Culture Reader demonstrates how important smell is in our daily lives.

One essay that particularly caught our attention is entitled ‘Nostalgia, the Odors of Childhood and Society’ by Alan R. Hirsh. This recalls at a study that took place in September 1991, which looked at scent that prompt nostalgic feelings. ‘Healthy individuals can smell 10,000 odors, but no two people will respond to a particular odor in the same way’. Instead a myriad of life experiences will alter and influence the way we perceive a scent. The study looked particularly at the scents associated with the recall of childhood experiences. Interviewing 1,000 people who had typically grown up in cities or suburbs and represented 45 states in America, and 39 countries – ‘eighty-five percent were susceptible to certain odours that triggered nostalgic feelings.

Most fascinating is the scents that evoked feelings of nostalgia through the different generations. Listed here from the book…

  • People born before the 1920’s – flowers, grass, roses, pine, soap, manure.
  • People born before the 1930’s – flowers, hay. sea air, pine, baby powder, burning leaves.
  • People born before the 1940’s – baby powder, mother’s perfume, hay, cut grass, flowers, sea air, twee.
  • People born before the 1950’s – baby powder, mother’s perfume, dad’s cologne, crayons, pine, play-doh
  • People born before the 1960’s – baby powder, mother’s perfume, chlorine,window cleaner, dad’s cologne, crayons, paste, play-doh, disinfectant, refineries/factories, motor oil, exhaust
  • People born before the 1970’s – baby powder, mother’s perfume, moth balls, plastic, hairspray, suntan oil, chlorine, felt-tip pens.

The steady switch from the recollection of natural scents to more synthetic, man-made substances causes the author to speculate that if the connection to the natural world through scent is an important motivation behind our ‘concern to preserve the environment‘ this concern may dwindle if the generations to come ‘can only experience olfactory-evoked recall in response to manufactured chemical odors‘.

Will the next generations have a disconnect between the natural world and their own past?. Alan Hirsch states in this essay, ‘society will certainly feel less urgency to preserve a natural environment if it has lost it’s power to appeal to special nostalgic yearnings’

Provokes some scent for thought.

The Smell Culture Reader
Jim Drobnick (ed.)
Oxford/New York: Berg Publishers (2006)
Softcover, 442 pages

Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., F.A.C.P., a neurologist and psychiatrist, and a recognized smell and taste expert. He has written more than 180 articles on the psychological power of smell, taste and how these senses affect human behavior. He is the founder and neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.