Scent has the power to affect how we feel, think, and behave, but there’s actually nothing inherent about scent that influences us. The effect a scent has on you originates from associations made with a feeling, a place, a person, or an experience.
Your sense of smell is connected to the emotional memory part of the brain—called the limbic system. Every time you breathe, you take in information about the world and you’re building associations with whatever is happening at that moment. Each connection between scent and that moment is logged like a file in a filing cabinet in the back of your head: this scent is associated with this experience, person, feeling, etc. That said, most of those experiences are unbelievably forgettable, so you don’t form a strong association with those smells.
Typically an association happens when one of two things happen:
- An intense emotional experience. It could be a first date, or falling in love, or another deeply positive feeling. Conversely, a traumatic experience can have the same effect.
- Duration also drives associations. For instance, you might have grown up in a house where your Nonna always cooked meatballs when you went to her house, or your mom always made her from-scratch cookies for a special occasion. You didn’t think much of it at the time, but because it happens again and again and again, your brain creates an association.
Once the association is formed, the scent becomes an emotional trigger. Just smelling the smell can transport you back to a place and evoke memories and emotions. In the future, when you smell that smell, it doesn’t trigger a visual memory, but it triggers an emotional memory. For example, if you smell Nonna’s meatballs 10 years later, you might not go back to the visual of Nonna’s house, but you’ll get those feelings of warmth and connectedness.
Knowing how scent associations are created allows us to harness these associations to influence moods, emotions, and behaviors. We also don’t have to wait for them to happen naturally—we can quite literally help people create scent associations with the help of immersive technology. In other words, technology now allows us to take advantage of this mechanism in your brain that we weren’t able to lean into before.
So, where do we go from here? There are ample tools that allow us to create immersive experiences, and at OVR, we’ve created one for scent. Our suite of tools harnesses neuroscience principles of association to provoke emotional, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes—giving both consumers and organizations the ability to experience, create, and share multi-sensory content.