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Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi

“People talk about the serious symptoms of coronavirus but, to be honest, losing my sense of smell for three weeks was no less upsetting,” says Mira*, a 32-year-old mother, and graphic designer.

“I love to wrap myself in the wonderful baby smell of my one-year-old. It gives me warmth and comfort, and the reassurance that everything is okay. Not having that for so long left me agitated and insecure.”

Mira’s words intrigued me about the power our sense of smell holds. I recalled how, a couple of years ago, while out on some errands, my eyes fell on a potted Arabian jasmine or motia plant. One whiff of the fragrant flowers, and I was transported to another time and place, flooded by childhood memories of my maternal grandmother’s garden in Lahore, hot summer nights, pedestal fans, and sleeping out on the verandah close to the motia bushes in her garden. How the infused fragrance in the car emanated from the motia flower adornment in my mother’s hair, and how there was always a small basket of freshly-picked motia flowers in my grandmother’s room, during motia season.

Multiple studies show that smells can trigger powerful memories and strong emotions. The importance of our sense of smell has a long evolutionary history. Our survival as a species has been dependent on our sense of smell through its ability to not only guide us to our source of nourishment, but also warn us of imminent danger, as in gas leaks, fires, and rotten food.

We experience the world around us, first and foremost, through our sense of smell. Olfactive expert Dawn Goldworm, the nose behind successful fragrances for Lady Gaga, Nike, American Express, Valentino, Cadillac, and many more, explains on TedTalk, that the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, is the ability to smell what the mother is eating, as early as the end of the first trimester. It is most developed in a child till 10 years of age, after which sight takes over.

Smell, our earliest sense, holds surprising sway over our perception, emotions and even other senses

It’s how an infant identifies its mother. In fact, contrary to popular belief, more than a mother’s touch, it is the scent of the mother that is the biggest source of comfort and security for her baby, and the reason why she would leave a scarf or t-shirt with her smell next to the baby in a bid to provide a sense of safety in her absence. It is through the sense of smell that we try to understand and make sense of our world.

“Since smell and emotion are the dominant senses in early childhood,” says Goldworm, childhood tends to be the period in which you create the basis for smells you will like and hate for the rest of your life.”

She theorises that the smells you like and dislike are not at all subjective. Rather they are formed entirely by your culture and living environment from the first 10 years of your life.

That best explains the excitement of Mariam*, a Pakistani immigrant settled in Toronto. “There’s nothing quite like the heady smell of Pakistani mangoes,” she says. “People here complain about how frightfully expensive they are in Toronto, but it’s like a slice of home, as it takes me back to my childhood.

“I happily pay and buy not only mangoes but Pakistani guavas too for their smell. I savour the familiar heavenly smells even more than the taste. It’s almost like I’m back home.”

When you smell an odour, you automatically associate an emotion with it, because scent and emotion clearly work together. Whereas other sensory information goes through the thalamus, the brain’s relay centre, scents bypass it and go straight to the limbic system, which has no connection with language, but is responsible for emotion. This explains why you may not be able to describe why you don’t like a particular smell but you can tell how it makes you feel.

This extraordinary ability of a smell to evoke an intense and emotional memory of an episode from your childhood is known as the ‘Proust effect’, after the famous French novelist who coined the term ‘involuntary memory’.

Researchers claim it is because of the close proximity of the smell centre to the memory hub in the brain, where we store memories and generate emotion. This is why some of our most powerful memories are linked to smell — the smell of freshly cut grass, of the wet earth soaked in monsoon rains, the smell of a freshly baked tandoori naan — to name a few.

Smells are all around us. They are underutilised and have the potential to be used as a tool. Sam*, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, lost his mother to cancer a year ago. He finds solace in her favourite scarf, which still hangs unwashed in his closet.

“Whenever I feel lost, alone or anxious, I just take that scarf and wrap it around me,” he says. “It still smells like her, and it makes me feel connected.”

Interestingly, according to research published in Medical News Today, a partner’s scent alone, even in their absence, is a powerful way to reduce stress. It is a coping mechanism for dealing with the stress of separation.

It is a sentiment shared by many, when they miss their loved ones. “I love wearing my husband’s sweatshirts around the house or sleeping on his side of the bed when he’s travelling,” says Luna*, an architect whose husband travels frequently for work. “It gives me a sense of comfort and I feel safe.”

A pleasant scent can make our experiences more enjoyable and memorable — an aspect that retailers often capitalise on, one of the best examples being the clothing brand Abercrombie and Fitch. Employees are required to spray their own perfumes throughout their stores and on their clothing, multiple times during the course of the day. It’s all part of their marketing strategy because, as already established, smells leave a long-lasting impression, and attract people, keeping them coming back for more.

There is ongoing research looking into the use of smells as a therapy and treatment for chronic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a powerful, yet little-used, tool. Smells have the ability to make us feel good in the most natural way when we are sick, to lift our spirits when we are sad, and to give a sense of security when we feel uprooted.

**Names changed to protect privacy*

The writer is based in Toronto, Canada, where she studies Cognitive Science