Smelleth the difference: What makes us all like or dislike different fragrances?

Smell - Olfactory - Smelleth the difference

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare wrote many a famous poem and was widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, yet was like most people when it came to scent. He had opinions on fragrance just like you and I.

When a person smells something, it evokes powerful, personal memories – each person is different and will process the smell in different ways; some will hate it, some might not be able to smell it and some will love it. But why do we like certain smells, but then on other occasions, hold our noses to reduce the risk of being exposed to a smell so foul? Is smell a case of Marmite and its taste, in the sense that you either “love it” or “hate it” or is it less straight forward?

Learned or predetermined?

Most olfactory scientists agree that a response to smell is learned over time and throughout a lifespan, starting in the womb. But not every expert remains entirely assured – you may, as the reader, also ‘turn your noses up’ at this statement. However, our individual history with specific scents and fragrances gives them significance, making them pleasant or unpleasant. Why do we like some scents and not others? Are we born destined to like or dislike certain smells, or do we obtain these preferences over time? Why do different people like different smells?

Now, surely, if we were all wired to like smells, then surely we’d all like the same ones and we’d not have situations where smell can be affected by things like cultural differences (for example, in countries within the Middle East, ‘Oudh’ is a very popular smell) but in Britain you wouldn’t experience this as it’s very unpopular and divides many opinions.

Science of smell

I definitely like the smell of ‘musk’ but do you? I bet a number of you are nodding your heads in agreement (a famous fashion brand use a synthetic version of this in one of their hugely successful and ‘Fierce’ products). But some people will in no doubt wonder who in their right mind wrote this (Musk is often referred to as glandular secretions from animals such as the musk deer – it was used naturally in ancient times, however, in the 19th century with the onset of something called ‘ethics’, natural musk was quite rightly suppressed and the smell was matched using non animal based compounds thankfully).

Your reaction to my question is what makes the science of smell so intriguing.

Human responses to odours are based on learning things that are associated to the smell. If the situations when you first smell a scent is good, then we are likely to prefer that odour; if it is bad, we show distaste to that particular odour. As humans, we are able to learn through our experiences and how to recognize which is which.

Caution when smelling

If we do indeed have a distinctive response to smell, then it is restraint. When exposed to an unaccustomed scent, babies and young children show caution and wait for confirmation from the adults around them to classify the scent as pleasant or unpleasant. Understanding why we disagree or agree on how certain fragrances smell is due to our actual personal and cultural histories and experiences.

Now, the blog started with Shakespeare and will end with a modern-day words worth and talented musician, Rihanna…

“I love reading people. I really enjoy watching, observing, and being able to figure out a person, the reason they wore that dress, the reason they smell the way they do.”

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