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Experimental psychologist Pamela Dalton doesn’t remember the first time she smelled cilantro. If she had to associate the scent with something, or someplace, it would probably be the supermarket, where she sniffed it to confirm what it wasn’t: parsley. But that changed a few years ago when she was traveling through Vietnam. She was wandering around a night market around 2 a.m., and the air was redolent with the earthy, citrusy aroma of cilantro. She says the intensity was overwhelming. To this day, when she smells cilantro, she’s transported. “It all comes back to me, the experience of walking through that market, the chatter of the vendors—it’s like I’m there again.”
Dalton knows this experience is special because, as a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, it’s part of her job to study the relationship between scent and memory. She explains that her brain created a new association with an odor—something that doesn’t happen that often by adulthood, when many scents are familiar. “Familiar scents don’t become uniquely associated with new places unless there’s something emotional going on,” she explains. In Dalton’s case, the moment was emotional—she was on vacation experiencing the joy of discovery—but, she says, the herbal scent was also unfamiliar—sweeter and more perfumed than supermarket cilantro.
Scent memories—whether they’re linked to a location or not—tend to be more emotionally charged than memories triggered by sounds or visual cues. This is because the olfactory bulb in the brain that processes smells is directly connected to both the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for encoding memories in the brain. In fact, last year, researchers (using advanced neuroimaging techniques) found that our olfactory system is more strongly connected to the hippocampus than our sensory systems for other senses like vision, touch, and hearing. In December, a different group of scientists, studying rats, discovered olfactory neurons that can encode spatial maps of different locations. “For some reason, evolution has granted our brains the ability to link an odor with a location,” says Dalton.
Scientists are just starting to understand the intersection of location and scent, but perfumers have been exploring these connections for years. There are entire fragrance collections, like Memo Paris and Gallivant, designed to evoke destinations through scent. And many of the best perfumes have the ability to transport: With its orange blossom and green cactus pepper notes, D.S. & Durga’s new scent Sweet Do Nothing bottles West Texas in the spring, while Aerin Mediterranean Honeysuckle Mimosa captures a summer day on the French Riviera.
And have you ever noticed how the aromas of certain hotels and resorts get lodged in your memory? That’s often intentional, says Dawn Goldworm, cofounder of the olfactive branding firm 12.29. “Smell is the most acute way for a brand to create a connection with a customer—and often that emotional, tangible connection translates into loyalty,” she says.
Le Sirenuse, in Positano, Italy, was one of the first resorts with a signature fragrance, but Sebastián Alvarez Murena, whose wife’s family founded the hotel, says it wasn’t a branding exercise. They simply wanted to commemorate Le Sirenuse’s 50th anniversary, which had passed without fanfare (a party in the fall of 2001 was canceled because of 9/11). In the spring of 2002, Murena, his wife, Marina Sersale, and a few other family members were on the hotel’s terrace discussing ways to celebrate, when someone came up with the idea of doing a fragrance. Two years later, they released Eau D’Italie, which has notes of blackcurrant, magnolia, and bergamot—the legendary aroma of the Amalfi Coast. But the thing that makes it special is a unique accord reminiscent of the terrace where the project was conceived: “Argile,” says Murena, using the French word for clay. Throughout the hotel, there are terracotta tiles and vases, as well as amphorae; when the sun hits them in the summer, the air is perfumed with their sweet and dusty mineral scent. “I can’t explain why it’s so popular—I’m not a psychologist,” says Murena. “But people wear Eau D’Italie and it reminds them of Le Sirenuse, of Positano, of happy times.”
These days, resorts with signature scents are ubiquitous. The Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa infuses its rooms with a blend of fig, bergamot, jasmine and freesia. The black-tea fragrance of Edition hotels is available in candle form and scents all their Le Labo toiletries.
Goldworm, who has developed fragrances for Thompson Hotels and Ritz-Carlton properties, says turning a location into a fragrance is an art, and she often relies on color to facilitate the journey. “If you ask someone to describe how a certain place smells, they usually don’t have the words,” she says. “But color helps to bridge the part of the brain that smells with the part of the brain that speaks.” Goldworm says that people all around the world tend to associate the same smells with the same colors, so when she begins a new project, that’s often where she starts.
“When I created a scent for the Montage resort in Cabo [San Lucas, Mexico], the team there wanted me to look at the local plants and flowers, but they also wanted me to watch the sunset,” she says. Hotel guests say the Pacific sunsets—fiery reds, intense oranges, soft yellows—are one of the best things about the location. The fragrance Goldworm designed plays off the colors of that ocean sky at dusk: “We used lemon-like bergamot and a juicy mandarin.”
Will lighting a candle or spraying a perfume replace a vacation? Of course not. But don’t underestimate smell’s ability to uplift, transport, and even orient you. Dalton says most people don’t recognize that power until it’s gone, as some Covid-19 patients understand firsthand. Those who experience anosmia, or loss of smell, report feeling disoriented and lost. They’re describing their emotional state, but perhaps the choice of words hints at something deeper.
Dalton interviewed a flight attendant years ago who’d been in a car accident and sustained a brain injury that caused anosmia. When she began traveling again for work, she often had trouble remembering where she was. “She almost didn’t know which city she was in because she didn’t have the smells—the scent of a metro or a market—to ground her,” says Dalton.
You can also pre-plan your scent memory: Next time you travel, pack a fragrance you haven’t worn before and use it throughout the trip. Then, reach for it in the future whenever you want to be reminded of your vacation. Or, whenever you find yourself somewhere new this summer, take a moment to stop and really smell the roses—or the market air, terracotta tiles, or salty sunset. You just may make a memory that lasts a lifetime.
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