A recent paper suggested that scent be included in a proposed intangible heritage list recognized by UNESCO. The move is supported by entries in the guest book to St. Paul’s Cathedral Dean and Chapter Library, which included, “….we all loved the smell and beautiful library” (11/02/15); “Amazing place! I can inhale the knowledge” (09/03/15); “We can smell the history, the fragrance of heritage and our communion with souls of the past” (04/11/15)
We don’t just appreciate the scent of the things we enjoy; we attempt to bottle it. You can spritz the smell of old books as a perfume, stock up on tiny bottles to catch the whiff of pine trees, or burn a candle to release the scent of rain. We actively enjoy recreating certain scents in our environment, not just experiencing them when they arise.
This is because scent carries significant psychological meaning and purpose. The American Journal of Psychology notes, “Proust remembered the kitchen of his beloved grandmother, describing in Swann’s Way how a madeleine pastry soaked in linden tea made a ‘shudder run through my whole body’…In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard, recalling his childhood home, wrote, ‘I alone, in my memories of another century, can open the deep cupboard that still retains for me alone that unique odor, the odor of raisins drying on a wicker tray.'”
For Proust and Bachelard, odors are crucial to attaching meaning to spaces or experience. (Anyone who has ever conjured long-ago family vacations from incidental smells like suntan lotion or Christmas wreaths, or former relationships from perfume or cologne knows this instinctively).
Scientists have attempted to quantify to what extent scent affects our perception of a place. One experiment exposed participants to scents and scenes, and then told them to create stories in response and recall details. It was much easier for participants to invent convincing and detailed scenarios in warm settings with pleasant odors. However, if a warm room was paired with an unpleasant odor, participants created details less well and had greater trouble remembering details if the scent didn’t fit the scene. “Thus,” concludes the study, “whether a person is reading a story or is imagining the outlines of an episode set in a novel space, odor serves as a glue that binds the scene and preserves an implicit memory of its incidental details.”