The Sweet Science Of Scent
The Australian Women's Weekly|March 2021
Fragrance sceptic Genevieve Gannon had dismissed aromatherapy – until a lavender candle changed her sleeping habits forever and sent her on a journey of discovery.
Genevieve Gannon

Sitting in an airy warehouse among hundreds of small glass bottles, I detect a familiar scent and am transported to a time and place that no longer exists. “It’s the third bedroom in my grandmother’s house in the 1980s,” I tell perfumer Ainslie Walker, who has just handed me a card doused in fragrance. I can picture crystal jewellery boxes and doilies. “My great-grandmother lived in that room. She always wore Chanel Number 5,” I add.

The scent on the card is a perfume called Two Hugs that Ainslie created for a domestic violence shelter, and she’s not surprised it has awakened memories connected to that famous French scent. Our sense of smell and our memory are intertwined, and the two perfumes both have notes of amber in the base, as well as patchouli and rose. Something in the aroma has awoken the memories that became attached to the heady floral scent when they were first stored in my brain all those years ago.

“I wanted it to smell quite expensive and sophisticated,” Ainslie says, as she takes me through her creative process. “I wanted the women to feel that they’re worth something and valued. It has bergamot in it, too, which is an antidepressant in the aromatherapy world, and lavender to help them sleep well. I liked the idea of the women spraying their bed and having this clean, uplifting, calming scent.”

I sniff the Two Hugs perfume again and agree: I feel content and comfortable. It’s not just the lovely smells and cherished memories – there’s possibly a slight therapeutic pay-off. I’m honestly not sure, but that’s why I’ve come to talk to Ainslie about the science of scent.

“There’s a bit of chemistry, but it’s also nostalgia and memory linking,” she says of scent creation. “Even kids who don’t know what lavender is for would feel relaxed when they smell it. Then later, as an adult, if your mum always used lavender in the bath, you might find it relaxing because of the association, as well as the chemistry.” But, she adds, “some people would find lavender very not-relaxing if they’ve had a bad experience with it.”

I’ve always been ambivalent about aromatherapy’s claims. I love perfume and scented candles, but I’ve never expected them to improve my state of mind or, as some believe, influence my behaviour. But I had a surprisingly positive experience with a lavender candle while investigating sleep cycles for The Weekly, and the academic research I read at the time made me reconsider my scepticism.

People have been using the essential oils distilled from plants and flowers to calm and heal for millennia. Lavender, the plant most studied for its psychophysiological properties, is widely accepted to be an effective sleep aid. Meanwhile, most people agree that a spritz of lemon or peppermint will perk you up.

In recent years, scientists have become more interested in measuring the power of scent – and the results are surprising. Under lab conditions, lavender has been shown to enhance relaxation and drowsiness, improve sleep quality by increasing the proportion of deep, slow-wave sleep, and even reduce the stress and pain of an injection.

There’s an emerging school of thought that claims it is possible to harness the emotive power of scent to influence people – so much so that global companies like American Express and Valentino now spend big on scenting spaces where they interact with customers.

Nike hired consultants to blend a perfume that would make its shops smell like a combination of basketball rubber and sports fields. These companies are clearly convinced of the scent-memory-emotion-behaviour link, and I want to know why.

The power of memory

“Rosemary is for remembrance” is a famous quote from Hamlet. Here’s another quote about rosemary: “Since ancient times, this aromatic herb has been believed to have properties to improve the memory.” That one comes from the Australian Army, and is the official explanation as to why we pin a sprig of the herb to our lapels on Remembrance Day.

Humans have long sensed there’s a connection between rosemary and memory, and it seems they’re onto something. In 2016, researchers at the University of Northumbria put 150 adults through a series of memory tests to measure what effect the aroma of rosemary would have on their memory. Some performed the memory tests in an unscented room, while others performed the tests in a room filled with the smell of rosemary. The test scores of those in the room with the rosemary were 15 per cent higher.

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