Smell the Roses, Really

50 Ways to Improve Your Life: Consciously noticing scents around you can improve your sense of smell

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Humans are notoriously visual creatures. But other sensuous worlds exist—a particularly fascinating one is right under your nose.

The sense of smell influences people in subtle, unexpected—even emotional—ways. Rachel Herz, a research psychologist at Brown University and author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, says that "unlike any of our other sensory systems, smells become...immediately attached to emotion because [smell and emotion are] basically processed in the same part of the brain." According to Herz, odor-evoked memory is "uniquely emotionally potent and evocative."

Smell not only unlocks memories; it also triggers changes in mood, heartbeat, breathing, and behavior, says Herz. For many women, body odor trumps looks when evaluating male attractiveness, and—according to the research—a woman can be especially drawn to a man whose sweat, to her, smells good. An impaired sense of smell can signal early-onset Alzheimer's; a lost sense of smell—anosmia—may lead to depression. Subliminal "good" or "bad" scents may affect people's assessments of "likability" in human faces. For some people, the smell of peppermint may enhance alertness while that of lavender may soothe anxiety. In one study, vanilla was used as a tool for controlling food cravings.

Keep in mind that much of smell is relative: Our like or dislike of an odor, and the way it affects us, is based on our individual history with it. "I met a woman who told me she hated the smell of roses because the first time she ever smelled a rose was at her mother's funeral," notes Herz.

So how to harness these and other powerful smells? Easy: Just inhale. Herz says that consciously noticing the scents around you can actually improve your sense of smell. She also suggests collecting scent mementos to revisit special memories (the hotel soap from your honeymoon, for example) and cooking aromatic comfort food that your mom used to make.