jeudi 17 janvier 2013

Does perfume feed (on) our brains?

What if each new fragrance we test was actually leeching away our brain’s processing power?

That’s the first thing I thought when I read an article on reporting the findings of Dr. Eric Spangenberg, an environmental psychologist and the dean of Washington State University’s College of Business. Dr. Spangenberg carried out a study in a home-goods store in Switzerland and two others with his undergraduates in the US to compare the effects of three olfactive environments: unscented, scented with orange, and scented with a more complex blend of orange, basil and green tea (the two scents both tested as similarly pleasant).

It turns out the single-note scent was the only one to make a difference: in the Swiss store, customers spent 20 percent more, while the undergraduates solve more computerized anagrams more quickly. No-scent and complex scent environments yielded identical results.

It would make sense that a pleasant scent, if it is compatible with the environment, would drive customers to linger in a store and therefore be exposed to more temptations. It’s also quite possible that the smell of oranges lifts the mood of students solving anagrams, therefore enhancing their intellectual performance because they’re less stressed out.

When I reached out to Dr. Spangenberg to discuss these issues, this is what he answered:

“Our interpretation of fluency theory suggests that it is either, as you suggest, increased affect for the simple scent and therefore they are in a better mood, or the scent enhances cognitive capacity (and isn’t too complex and therefore taking up processing capacity).  It could be some combination of both explanations which would help explain why we found no difference in response behaviors between complex and no-scent, and simple scent was better (significantly) that both of those conditions.”

The processing fluency theory he refers to is “the ease with which information is processed in the human mind” (according to Wikipedia). It seems that “high fluency is subjectively experienced as positive”: in other words, we feel good when we can suss something out easily. In this theory, fluency has a bearing on what we find beautiful based on symmetry, familiarity, etc.

This would explain why the orange-basil-tea, though as pleasant as the orange, doesn’t produce the same effect when people experience it without being aware of it. Their brains are actually using up processing resources to identify the notes – a bit like a background program slowing other software down. Because the fragrance itself becomes a problem to be solved, they are less engaged by other stimuli (buying napkins or solving anagrams). It’s like a nagging, subconscious “I’ve got it on the tip of my tongue” feeling.

This may be why I, for one, refrain from testing a new fragrance – or even from wearing fragrance at all – when I’m about to tackle a tricky intellectual task. As though I needed to shut the “background program”, the floating attention required to turn my impressions of a fragrance into words as I experience it over the hours.

But on the other hand, floating attention – as opposed to knitted-brow, “pick out the notes” sessions over blotters – is usually what yields the most creative results. It’s when I forget the fragrance that I find the words. They pop up while I’m performing some mindless activity like walking or taking a shower. Which is where processing fluency must kick in: I’ve trained the smell => words paths in my brain, so the connection happens spontaneously when I’m not trying to force it. All perfume lovers are familiar with that eureka moment.

This makes me wonder whether it’s possible that some fine fragrances, despite their complexity, achieve a harmony that makes people process them fluently without even being aware of it. Not necessarily because they are simple, figurative and/or familiar, but because somehow their olfactory forms make as much sense as the smell of oranges, echoing proportions, or achieving the same relationship between their notes, as something produced by nature. Perhaps that is the key to the success of some original fragrances – as opposed to copycats: people perceive these proportions subconsciously and respond to their harmony.

It's also possible that becoming more fluent in the language of scent, dedicated perfume lovers may experience the pleasurable feelings procured by fluent processing more frequently. In that case, though testing different scents drains some of our brainpower, we’d be benefitting because this fluent processing would subtly enhance our mood, and maybe even our cognitive capacities.

That’s probably not something that can be tested in labs, but it’s a damn sight more reassuring than to think all those vials around my computer are competing to suck out my brain like tiny zombies. If yours have enough gray cells left to respond, I’d love to read your thoughts…

For another take on Dr. Spangenberg’s research, please check out Dr. Avery Gilbert’s blog, First Nerve.

Illustration: Gala Narciso by Salvador Dali, 1938.

17 commentaires:

  1. When I read the title, I instanly thought it is absolutely not possible for perfumes to feed on my brain (I was thinking about making me stupid actually). :)

    But I agree with your thoughts on this - it takes concentration to smell out the notes in perfumes, sometimes more, sometimes less but you can't do it without utilizing your brain.
    I believe that is why I usually choose easily worn and understood perfumes (for me) for work. I need to be able to concentrate on what I'm doing and not on what I'm smelling around me.
    Hmm, that is probably a reason why I spontaneously stopped smelling samples at work - not enough cognitive power. ;)

    Plus, I agree, I usually have flashes of ideas on perfumes when I'm doing something that doesn't require mental consciousness (I won't mention now the usual place where that happens). :)

    P.S. I just have to add, trying to figure out the captcha usually requires significant concentration on my part. :) (I just realized this while deciphering it here)

  2. Ines, the title was deliberately provocative! But when I mentioned not wearing scent when I needed to focus on writing, Dr. Spangenberg did think that it had something to do with intuitively managing my mind's processing power.
    As for those flashes... they often involve... flow, right? Showers are a good place for me. Walking too.

  3. Flow is a good word for it. :)

    I know the title was deliberately provocative and it worked. Intuitively managing mind's processing power is exactly the right phrasing. I mean, it sounds like what happens to me as well.

    And speaking of flow, I admit, I get most ideas for posts when I had a glass of wine (or two). ;)
    I feel like a true Croatian "writer" then (most of them drank excessively though).

  4. Ines, I remember reading about research on creative juices let loose by small doses of mood/mind altering substances. I sometimes used to take a sleeping pill called Ambien in the USA, to which I owe interesting (though not entirely grammatical) writing. Problem was it also spurred on the equivalent of drunk-texting. And bidding on eBay was another risk. I've now given up on it entirely but it's true that disinhibitors can help unstick creativity.
    And so does, ahem, flow.

  5. How interesting! I really like your thought that perfumes give pleasure when they “make sense”. I further wonder if this kind of processing fluency can be linked to synthesia?

    In my case, I find that when a perfume really works for me it will consistently summon an image, a kind of synethesia I suppose. Sometimes the images are abstract. For me, Rubj is a floating sphere. Sometimes the images are of things I’ve seen before. Mohur consistently summons a memory of the stained glass at St. Chapelle. Other images have a more obvious olfactory link. The poplar note in Seve Exquise always brings with it the image of the grove of Balm of Gilead poplar trees on my grandparent’s farm. In any event, when a perfume decodes into a visual image, I know I’ve found something I love.

  6. Kathryn, the "making sense" happens when we can pin a smell to something familiar -- or, I suspect, when we perceive in it certain proportions. I guess getting a spontaneous visual association is a variation on that. And a very creative one!

  7. Random thoughts:

    We’re talking about scent processing as occurring on a cerebral level, but the scents in the study are food-derived. The gut is richly enervated and works in tandem with the brain. Foody smells can be distracting or enticing b/c they signal digestive and other bodily responses – rumbling stomach in response to cookies, alertness in response to coffee. That would divert blood flow to the gut, but it wouldn't have to do with occupying competing cerebral/cognitive capacity.


    From salon: “In the case of Spangenberg’s tests, it might be possible that the more quickly your brain can make sense of a smell, the more you like it, the more you like the store it’s in, and perhaps the more brain power you can devote to other tasks (like solving anagrams).”

    So try a study that pipes in the smell of melting plastic or some other familiar, identifiable smell into a room. You know what it is immediately but do you like knowing what it is? Does a recognizable, non-foody and potentially non-pleasant smell stimulate better test performance because we like being able to “make sense” of it quickly?


    Also, you had an article earlier about perfumers not needing to access memory to ID scents; the scent-recognition capacity and cognitive requirements of the layman taking the computer exam is different than that of the fragrance-experienced.

    - Lys.

  8. (I think I lost my changes to the first part, meant to say that food-specific smells might stimulate responses other of the cognition required to ID the smell, but that would nonetheless divert bodily resources away from cognition. Something like that. Seems like the article is privileging cognition.)

  9. Lys, though are all very relevant points, and I'll send the link to Dr. Spangenberg to see if he wants to address them.
    I do think though that part of the experiments involved people not actually being aware that they recognized orange: it's just something the brain processes, then basically it goes "ok, no threat, nice" and resumes its other tasks.
    I'm also reminded of a talk by a neurologist specialized in olfaction: his hypothesis was that the smell-recognition apparatus that ascribes hedonic valence (yum/yuck) to smells is the same as for food. Which prompted me to ask him about incense: widely perceived as beautiful by many cultures, yet not the least foody. He admitted he had no answer for that.

  10. I'll have to reflect on this and observe more to see what effect perfume has. I do know I don't like to listen to music when I have to concentrate on writing or figuring out something (like reading the instruction manual on a electronic item).

    On the other hand, I think anything that uses the brain in a new way helps to keep it young, so I'm hoping my perfume collection can substitute for boring puzzles. To be honest, research shows exercise is good; I haven't actually seen any on perfume yet, so this is hopeful speculation (or rationalizing the expenditures)! ~~nozknoz

  11. Nozknoz, I feel the same way about music. Definitely nothing vocal. Bach can do it, but not by Gould (if it's Gould, then I do nothing but listen). For some reason, Haydn string quartets work a charm though: maybe they were intended to be "tablemusic" all along? I'm pretty sure this has got to do with processing fluency...

    Pretty sure too olfactory exercise is positive for ze leettle gray cells, as Hercule Poirot would say. I published a press release about research on perfumers' brains a while back, but just in French: I've found the English version and will post it anon.

  12. Nothing too deep or well read to add to this very stimulating conversation- I appreciated the debate going on in the French section, but can't make my French express my ideas!!- I just chime in to say that, when wearing a new fragrance- expecially if it contains notes that I don't like or remind me of something unpleasant- I feel often disoriented and distracted, paying much more attention to the scent and to the feeling it raises than to what I'm doing... On the other hand, a smell I immediately perceive as "right" for me seem to have a boosting effect on my intellectual abilities...

  13. Iodine, I guess that's the "feel-good" aspect of processing fluency at play! Do you think scents you perceive as "right" for you are those that are closer to your usual tastes as they stand on the olfactory map?

  14. I always thought that perfume engages rather than detracts from our brain's processing power-- it lights up the switchboard, limbers up the synapses. I admit a whiff of great perfume might distract me from carrying out an intricate arithmetic problem. But so would pretty much everything else in my environment. (Who am I kidding? ANYTHING not to have to do math!) :)

  15. Olenska, for all we know, the "orange effect" that stimulates Spangenberg's students is elicited by more complex blends in more scent-literate subjects. That's what I'm hoping, and Spangenberg doesn't discard the hypothesis.

  16. Like combing your hair, listening to Mozart combs your cerebral vortex , whoops I mean your cerebral cortex, making a smooth path for creativity to flow along. A defrag for your brain. 10 minutes prior and/or during a concentrated task or creative endeavor. The scientific explanation is that certain types of music improve concentration and enhance our ability to make intuitive leaps by organizing the firing patterns of neurons in the cerebral cortex. The spiritual explanation goes back to David and his soothing harp. Bach - yes I find the only thing to do is listen. Beethoven - a great way to launch into the day. To lift your spirits or counter depression, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 played twice with a double dab of Parfum Du Jour thoughtfully selected by you.

  17. Jordan, when I get the "mean reds" (as Holly Golightly would say, in contrast to getting the blues), then Mozart is indeed the one I turn to. I sing along with his Da Ponte operas. But I would definitely not put on just any composition by Mozart when focusing. Totally agree on the defrag though, which is why I take advantage of long train rides to listen to classical music, while doing nothing else.
    One thing apart from Haydn string quartets I do find I can put one while writing are Couperin's "Barricades mystérieuses" harpsichord pieces. They actually sound like synapses crackling and connecting!