The Science Behind Fragrances

Most of us appreciate the power of a really well-blended cologne. A lot of men swear by cologne as one of the best ways to really pull together their whole look. And the scent is so important in a social aspect as well. Though still not entirely understood and largely unconscious, the scent has a lot to do with social relationships and interactions. Basically, how you smell may actually be a defining factor as to why someone finds you attractive or not. This has led men to the understanding that with a bit of trial and error, they can find their perfect, soon to become signature, scent.

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Smell and scents in general work in a unique way when it comes to sensory perception. Not many people often consider how smell actually works and how fragrances like those used in colognes are actually received and processed by our senses, translating into a particular scent. What seems like a pretty simple concept suddenly got much more complicated and far more interesting than one might have thought at first glance.

So, how exactly does fragrance, well, smell good to us?

Something a lot of people might not know is just how old the art of personal fragrances is. Historically, we can find evidence from some of the oldest civilizations – like the Sumerians and Egyptians – that showed that they used scented oils and a variety of products designed to achieve the desired smell. Families of higher class and status tended to have a wider range of increasingly exotic fragrance combinations. In part, scented oils helped mask the smells of human sweat as these were warmer locations. It also helped keep people smelling fresh as, well, hygiene just wasn’t what it is now back then – partly due to lack of access to sanitary facilities, and partly because of a lack of understanding about the connection between hygiene and health.

While compared to many other animals, we have a pretty poor sense of smell as humans, it is still good enough that our emotions and moods and even behavior can be affected by it. What started out as a way to help mask personal odor or show one’s status has now become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Humans have about 50 million scent receptors. Scent molecules are absorbed by a thin membrane in the nasal cavity. Cilia, which are small, hairlike protrusions, then send the appropriate signals to one of the four areas of the brain that process and manage olfactory inputs. The ability to perceive smells, while it starts in the nose, actually arises from the frontal cortex. The hippocampus is what will tie particular scents to certain memories. The amygdala and hypothalamus are responsible for the physical and emotional responses we have to certain smells. In essence, our nose is merely the conduit by which the brain processes and perceives scent.

This helps to explain why certain scents, like pine, are associated with feelings of home and family or memories of Christmas. It is due to the connections that our brains make to these smells that happen at an unconscious level but have a very real effect on our mood and even our behavior. Who would have thought the process of smelling a new cologne was actually so complex? (Other than scientists, of course.)

There are many scientists who believe that our olfactory system is one of the oldest bodily systems we have, meaning it evolved before some of the more complex elements of our nature and bodily processes did. The scent, while not as strong to us as some other animals, is a powerful thing that can have real effects on the mind and body. Though most of us don’t realize it, our scent has a lot to do with how attractive we are to another person. This is a unique scent that nobody else has and is part of what lets our kin know that we are, well, kin.

The process by which a smell is actually perceived is a rather complicated process and to some people’s surprises, takes place almost wholly in the brain. That is, the perception of smell is not trying a physical response, it is the way the brain processes and associates different scent molecules that are absorbed in the nose and the signals of which are transmitted from the nose to the olfactory areas in the brain.