Friday, March 26, 1999 Published at 09:53 GMT
Something in the air ...
Smells do not need to be computed by the brain
By BBC News Online's Liz Doig
The smell of a brick-shaped French biccy wafting up the nostrils of Marcel Proust was all it took to unleash a tidal wave of unbidden memories.
As Monsieur Proust acknowledged in Remembrance of Things Past, a stray odour can be a powerful thing.
It shoots up the sensory highway of your hooter and smacks straight into the part of the brain - the limbic system - which deals with memory and emotion.
Which means that being reunited with a whiff even after decades of separation can trigger all sorts of associations and memories.
Their Learning Zone is to come complete with just a hint of boiled cabbage and stink bomb, to put visitors in mind of their school days.
They are by no means the first to get in on the olfactory fiddling act.
Museums up and down the country have added extra sensory dimensions to various exhibitions by simulating smells of different ages.
And more and more shops are cottoning on to the mood-enhancing possibilities of dropping a few tablets of specially-designed fragrance into the air conditioning.
Marketing evaluations officer for fragrance firm CPL, Samina Khan, says this can work in one of two ways.
Either the company seeks to enhance its corporate brand by developing is own distinctive odour to be piped through stores and offices.
In the air conditioning
Or it will choose a fragrance to match a particular promotion or festive occasion.
Ms Kahn says: "The Body Shop has a very distinctive smell about it. Shoppers recognise and associate the smell with the brand.
"Other types of shops also do this by placing fragrance in their air conditioning. It's a subliminal thing which reinforces a customer's image of the outlet.
"Another thing that shops do is maybe at Christmas, when they've got carols playing and all the shiny decorations up, is to pipe the fragrance of Christmas pudding through the air conditioning system."
Manufacturer of frangrances and flavours, Quest International, confirms that all manner of fragrance, from baked bread to new car smell can effectively be bottled.
New car smell is primarily leather, so is apparently relatively easy to reproduce, as the odour comes from chemicals used in the hide treatment process.
All a salesman has to do to enhance his chances of flogging a motor, therefore, is to liberally douse his vehicle with eau de nouvelle voiture.
Spokesman for Quest International, Martin Holme, says: "The irony is that a lot of the time, what people think is a 'real' smell is not - it is synthesised.
"You let someone smell bergamot oil, and they might think it smells 'chemical' when it is entirely natural.
"On the other hand you let them smell synthesised fresia, and they will swear it is the real thing. A lot of it is down to perception."
He admits, however, that imitating nature is no mean feat.
The odour of a grapefruit, he explains, is contained in such a minutely small molecule of the whole fruit that just 1mg of it would be enough to flavour a football stadium filled with water.
"Fragrance is a very powerful thing. It elicits all kinds of emotions," says Mr Holme.
"It is also something which people are becoming very attuned to. It is a huge growing market."
He says that where people would once have contented themselves with a nasty can of chemical air freshener, fit only to be stashed behind the loo, they are now demanding more naturally fragrant homes.
"I personally think it has a lot to do with the Millennium and people taking more interest in the spiritual dimension of life.
"They want their homes to be havens of fragrant comfort and identity. They want candles and incense and natural smells to surround them."
Industries, too, he says, are becoming increasingly more attuned to the pong power.
Mobile phones, according to users, have different scents, he says.
And supermarkets have the option of putting "crusty bread fragrance" into their air conditioning, to complement the odours of in-store bakeries.
But, he warns, people do not like to feel manipulated, and the use of subliminal odour influence should be carefully considered.
Allergy pressure groups agree, saying that the effects of pumping synthesised whiffs into the air we breathe are not fully understood - although manufacturers insist it is an entirely safe practice.
Tony Curtis, who runs Europe's only four-year degree course in perfumery at Plymouth University, agrees that the bounds of the powers of fragrance have not yet even been broached.
He says: "Fragrance is something which deeply affects the individual, and that certainly has commercial implications.
"A smell will go straight to the seat of emotions and memories in the brain. It doesn't need to be computed like language, so its effect is immediate and can be subliminal.
"We have all known for a long time that fragrance has an effect on us - so we will fill our homes with coffee and bread smells when we are trying to sell them.
"But I think we are just beginning to fully appreciate how fragrance can be integrated into our lives for our ultimate well-being."