A freshly cut Christmas tree, candles burning atop the oven, the bakery, egg nog and the rush as a brisk breeze brings aromas of the first snowfall. Almost every holiday memory is triggered by the perennial scents of the season.
Every year the familiar scents of the winter months bring joy and excitement through memories and promise. But why can we smell these molecular treasures? And why are memories linked to the wafts of odorants through the nasal passage?
Since smell is a chemical sense, receptor cells of the nervous system are used to detect odorants by the chemical nature of their molecules. Once the molecules enter the nose, the receptor sites, which are regions on the receptor cells, pick up the molecules and send an electrical signal to the limbic system in the brain, which controls memory and behavior. From there, the delight of a pleasant smell brings upon a smile or an undesirable smell causes one to cringe and memories are formed in association with experience.
This year, senior Gina Roswell, English and philosophy major, said that the scent of chimney smoke sparked her first thoughts of the holidays.
“I love the smell of chimney smoke,” she said. “I smelled it the other day and got all excited.”
Junior social work major Kathleen Sweeney uses her olfaction when she first smells Christmas trees to trigger memories of family trips to Tamaqua, Pa., where she and her family go each year to find their Christmas tree.
“Every year I can smell the Christmas trees being sold on neighborhood corners and I think of how my family can’t just be normal and buy one of those,” Sweeney said. “The man who sells the trees to us knows us all by name and takes pride in having the Philadelphians come all the way to Tamaqua to get our tree.”
The smell of the holidays reminds Leslie Glavine, junior and graphic design major, of childhood memories with her cousins. “On Christmas Eve, we all go to my grandparents house for the seven fish thing and we have spaghetti for dinner,” she said.
“When we were little my cousins and I would walk in and the windows in the kitchen would be all steamy from the pot of boiling spaghetti. We would all write our names and draw pictures in the steam on the windows. Now every time my mom or grandmom cooks spaghetti, that smell reminds me of Christmas Eve.”
Asked if she will be decorating the steamed windows with her name and pictures this year, Glavine laughingly said, “probably.”
Although the scents of the holidays are easily identifiable, our sense of smell does not stop there. In the season of giving, it is acceptable to want a little too. And what better to want than some love? With the help of the sense of smell, people can be undeniably attracted to each other. Pheromones, known also as subliminal sex attractants, can spark sexual attraction between males and females and, chances are, they would never know it. From the smell of a man’s sweat to the natural scent of a woman’s hair, excreted pheromones may be the reason you bump into that special someone under the mistletoe.
Did you know?
-If your nose is in peak performance, you can tell the difference between 4,000 and 10,000 scents.
-As you grow older, your sense of smell gets worse. Children are likely to have
much more subtle senses of smell than parents or grandparents.