My Favorite Things: The Olfactory Never Sleeps

Posted inCreative Voices

What’s your Elephant’s favorite smell?

That’s a pretty odd question. Let’s take a look at it.

1. Things We Experience; Things We Know

First off, what’s this capital E Elephant?

For centuries, thinkers from Buddha, to Plato, to Freud, to psychologists like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, the Heath brothers, and Jonathan Haidt, have sought ways to depict the human psyche’s fundamental operating principles.

Most of us know something about Freud’s Id, Ego, Superego “iceberg” model depicting our conscious and unconscious mind. But another metaphor has also prevailed: that of “The Rider and The Elephant.” It’s simple to understand, most recently popularized in Haidt’s work.

Imagine a scene of a person riding on the back of an elephant. Here’s how Chip and Dan Heath summarize the dynamics: “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

Kahneman succinctly named these two sets of psychological operations System 1 and System 2 (a nomenclature he attributes to psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West). Here’s Kahneman’s description of the two systems:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” (Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 20-21). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition, (emphasis added)).

One of this model’s key insights is that the Elephant is “always on”: automatically, constantly, unconsciously, vigilant. The Rider, on the other hand, is whatever we are attending to at any given moment.

That means that when you’re sitting in a restaurant talking with a friend and there’s a bit of a commotion over in the corner, your Rider can continue the conversation but your Elephant is monitoring the disturbance…just in case you need to do something about it quickly…like fight or flee. That’s because our Elephants specialize in survival (and reproduction, but we’ll get to that later).

The Elephant specializes in things we experience; the Rider in things we know.

So, when I ask the question, “what’s your Elephant’s favorite smell?” I’m asking you to put the Rider to work reflecting on something the Elephant normally experiences unconsciously. The thing is, most of us can come up with an answer without too much difficulty. (Me? Lemon.) What “brings the answer to mind” so quickly? It’s because our sense of smell is our most primordial and emotionally powerful sense.

2. The Elephant’s Sensory Equipment

The physical apparatus responsible for our sense of smell forms in the first eight weeks in utero and is, unlike vision for example, completely developed at birth. Newborns have been “smelling” their mothers’ amniotic fluid for their entire gestation period, making them (literally) intimately familiar with their mother’s scent at birth.

“Many mommies can remember that initial ‘crawl,’ where the baby is able to locate the breast to feed right after birth,” Dr. Samantha Goldman describes. “Even immediately after birth, infants are able to recognize and be calmed by their mother’s scent, because they were already exposed to it in utero.”

The physiology of our sense of smell is miraculous. The neurophysiological mechanisms responsible for the almost-instantaneous transformation of an atmospheric molecule into an emotion-laden fragrance experience are centered around the Olfactory bulb.

As this diagram shows, the Olfactory bulb is an extension of the brain into the nasopharyngeal cavity. The bulb is the only part of the brain extending outside the skull’s protection. This means fragrances go directly from the environment, into our nasal cavities, get detected by the Olfactory bulb and sent directly into other parts of the brain. Specifically, fragrance “messages” are transmitted into the hippocampus and amygdala, brain regions primarily responsible for memory and emotion. Small wonder, then, that smells are so powerfully emotionally evocative.

And, since our sense of taste is so deeply intertwined with smell, flavor/smell combinations also often revive long-forgotten memories. These excerpts from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past are a renowned example:

I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine, which on Sunday mornings at Combray…my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first into her own cup of tea…

The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I had tasted it.

Technically, Proust is describing an aroma, a smell processed both through our nose and “retronasally,” or through our taste buds. Many smells are combinations of these two intertwined senses, which co-evolved in our ancestors to enable both survival and reproduction. Studies show that humans can detect blood relatives through olfaction, an evolutionary capacity for avoiding inbreeding.

Primarily, our species has used our sense of smell as a powerful mechanism for attracting people to things, places, and one another.

3. Studying Smells

We’ve seen that smell is the newborn’s original world-orienting mechanism. This means we are born with “favorite” smells…ones we are primordially attracted to (rain) and ones we are instinctively repelled by (rot). Unsurprisingly for a sense that arrives fully formed at birth, genetics plays an important role in our range of sensitivities to, and preferences for certain smells. That made smell an historically important area of scientific study.

Enter psychology.

Historically, psychology has broadly approached perception in two ways.

In the late 19th century, the first approach was pioneered in Wilhelm Wundt’s first experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig. The approach is known as “psychophysics”: “the analysis of perceptual processes by studying the effect on a subject’s experience or behaviour [by] systematically varying the properties of a stimulus along one or more physical dimensions.” Of course this approach utilized exclusively quantitative methodology. After all, psychology was a new science and naturally emulated physics as a foundation for its claims of scientific legitimacy and to mark its distinction from philosophy. This choice dictated psychology’s approach to the senses, its research methods, and the data it collected.

The modern descendent of psychophysics is the Stimulus—Response (S—R) approach which measures levels of responses to varying stimulus strength/duration. It is purely quantitative.

The second approach added a focus on the subject’s experience of the stimulus as well as the nature and magnitude of the response. Once experience became important, qualitative (descriptive) methods were needed. This approach became known as the Stimulus—Organism—Response model (S—O—R).

The S—O—R approach emphasizes that between the physics of the world of vibrations, molecules and movement, and the subject’s internal neurophysiological and neuropsychological experiences to those vibrating molecules is a world-interpretive entity that psychologists termed the organism, or the O.

The distinctions between the two models are especially relevant in regard to our sense of smell. We’ve seen that smell is one of our primordial ways of interacting with the world. It goes without saying that the way something smells to us is a function of the molecules in the environment that emit stimuli that are received by the specially-attuned cells in our nasopharyngeal system; our noses, mouths, and the nervous system elements that connect them to the brain.

But smells are deeply affected by the factors that have shaped the individual organism’s contextual presence-in-the-world. That means that a particular smell can evoke very different responses in different people by virtue of a constellation of genetic, neurophysiological, cultural, and unique personal-historical factors. We see this in the Proust example, in which a distinctive taste/smell combination evoked a powerful set of memories from his childhood. No one else would have had this particular experiential response to this stimulus.

In other words, my “favorite smells” are emergent holistic experiential “judgments” rooted in my unique being-in-the-world. No matter the chemical composition of a molecule, cultural/personal factors deeply influence our experience of its appeal.

Take durian, for example. The fruit is prized in various Asian cultures but less so in EuroAmerican ones. It’s described in this way: “The unusual flavour and odour of the fruit have prompted many people to express diverse and passionate views ranging from deep appreciation to intense disgust.

Our constantly-exploring predecessors were unwilling to limit their world of olfactory experience to the naturally occurring smells of the lemon or the durian. Instead, they explored the possibilities of creating appealing smells. This became a highly precise and grandly lucrative pursuit.

Enter perfumery.

4. The Architecture of Fragrances

The search for fragrance follows no path other than obsession.


So, your Elephant is born with equipment that enables survival/reproduction-focused smell-detection. The equipment has remained essentially unchanged for about 100,000 years. As is so often the case in human history, naturally available raw materials became the starting point for human creativity. Because our sense of smell is so emotionally evocative, it’s not surprising to find irrefutable evidence of our predecessors systematically working to create appealing smells for over 6,000 years.

Perfumery is one of our species’ oldest practices. Here’s a depiction of Egyptians laboriously creating a lily-scented liquid in the 4th century BCE.

Modern perfumers are the descendants of these Egyptian protochemists. They “compose,” formulate, and create fragrances using a wide array of essential oils, solvents, and other aromatic compounds. They do so using a system that utilizes both the Elephant’s physical apparatus and an appreciation of the factors that contribute to fragrance complexity.

Perfumers design fragrances by creating an harmonious blend of compounds that complement and enhance one another. Over centuries, perfumers refined and passed down methods and formulae that take advantage of the properties and characteristics of available raw materials and the Elephant’s olfactory capabilities.

Today, fragrance-makers use a pyramidal architectural approach to fragrance design, “building” fragrances from “the bottom up.” Base, middle (heart), and top (head) components (also called “notes” to allude to analogous musical metaphors) combine to form fragrances that differ in their initial, mid-term, and longer-term olfactory experiences.

As for favorites, different historical eras have had different opinions of what makes for “beautiful” fragrances. Aristotle explained it this way: “Any beautiful object, whether a living organism or any other entity composed of parts, must not only possess those parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary; beauty consists in magnitude as well as order.” Aristotle. Poetics (Penguin Classics S.) (p. 14). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Some of us are (afflicted? blessed?) with hyperosmia : an acute sensitivity to smell, described as both a disorder and a superpower. Otherwise, many cultural (e.g., patchouli in the 60s/70s) and personal (e.g., Proust’s madeleine) factors play critical roles in both the Elephant’s and the Rider’s reactions to the perfumer’s creations. As in all things, fragrance tastes change.

But, some fragrances have stood the test of time. Chanel N°5 is one example. Here’s how Chanel describes their iconic product: “With its unprecedented use of aldehydes and layers of complexity, N°5 was the world’s first abstract fragrance. The Eau de Parfum draws inspiration from the original Parfum. This floral bouquet, composed around May rose and jasmine, features bright citrus top notes. Aldehydes create a unique presence, while the smooth touch of bourbon vanilla yields an incredibly sensual sillage.

Sillage, “…refers to the trail created by a perfume when it is worn on the skin. It comes from the word in French for “wake” and can best be described as how a fragrance diffuses behind the wearer as they move.”

Note Chanel’s reference to N°5 as an “abstract fragrance”—a composition intended to create a mood or feeling—before citing some of its physical ingredients.

5. Led Around By The Elephant’s Nose

In the end it’s probably most important to recognize that our sense of smell has a significant impact on the degree to which we are attracted by, and attract, other people. That’s makes smell one of the Elephant’s most important contributions to our evolutionarily-crucial reproductive success.

All of this shows us that from the very first moments of our lives, we are more deeply affected by our sense of smell than we think. Our Elephant literally leads us around by the nose.

And so, going back to the original question: What’s your Elephant’s favorite smell? What are its characteristics? What associations (like Proust’s stirrings) does the smell evoke? What longings?

Then, what fragrances does your Rider select as its favorites? What are your Rider’s preferences in perfumes, soaps, shampoos, candles, fruits, baked goods, fast food shops, beverages? What fragrances repel your Elephant/Rider duo?

And, what do your favorite smells tell you about yourself and your life?

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Photo by Nashad Abdu on Unsplash.