Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011
Do you want to feel better? Just a whiff of chocolate can do it.
Just before you ripped the wrapper off your chocolate bar yesterday, did you take a moment to have a good sniff of the unwrapped bar?
While just eating chocolate is enough to put most of us in a good frame of mind and now latest research suggests “odor du chocolat” – just the smell of it – can improve your mood.
This happy news comes from the Human Olfaction Laboratory at Middlesex University, where Neil Martin, a reader in psychology, investigates the effects of room smells on human behavior. In his laboratory, Martin has a square box called an AromaCube, which heats up “odorants” and percolates the smell around the room. That is where Chocolate smells like a “great tasting” theory.
From that box, Martin discovered the power of chocolate in an experiment where he filled rooms with three smells, one of chocolate, a “malodor” of machine oil, which most people find unpleasant, and a lemony, pleasant-but-alerting odor, then monitored testers’ moods.
The aim was to compare the effects of pleasant and unpleasant ambient odors on stress, anxiety, depression and mood. The results proved that that the smell of chocolate really does make people less stressed and anxious, and more relaxed.
Chocoholics will also be pleased to hear about some of Martin’s earlier research. In another study he looked at the effect of chocolate on brain activity. People were presented with a range of smells, some artificial food odors and some real food odors, with both samples including chocolate. He used electroencephalography technology to record his participants’ brain waves as they sniffed the air, and found that in both experiments, the chocolate smell consistently led to a reduction in a particular type of brain activity called theta, which is thought to be an index of attentiveness. Theta levels dropped significantly across both indexes when testees smelled chocolate.
The experiment also shows there is no need for chocolate snobbery. We all know connoisseurs say posh chocolate, with a higher cocoa content, is better for your health, and it might be in some ways, but when it comes to the aroma of chocolate and its resultant relaxing effect, it was found it was the same however much milk the bar contained.
But some of his other scent findings provide more significant practical effects. It seems that scent can affect employment. One study found that a combination of perfume and formal dress worn by an applicant led interviewers to rate them as less warm, more manipulative and less presentable. The study also showed people perform less well on cognitive tasks and report more symptoms of ill health when smelling a “bad” smell.
As a result, people should be aware of their “olfactory environment” to control their feelings. People can use scents to improve alertness, well-being and reduce anxiety. “For example, another study showed that women in a dentist’s waiting room scented with orange reported less anxiety than those in an unscented counterpart.
In another experiment, PlayStations were loaded with a car rally game to test the effect of a lemon smell on driving ability. Men and women were invited to play the game on three different levels and in three different environments, one in an odorless room, one smelling of lemon, and one of machine oil.
The results showed that participants were consistently able to brake more safely and appropriately in the presence of the lemon scent. It’s perhaps because the smell is citrusy and alerting, and suggests that dangling a lemon-scented air freshener in the car could make you a better driver.
The psychology of aromas is like a Rubik’s cube—hard to pin down and more difficult to describe. The problem is science doesn’t really understand smells yet. We have vague terms for them, and say things like “it smells like this or that,” but we don’t have chemical terms for most odors.
One thing is certain, however. The effects of most smells tend to be short-lived. With the exception of chocolate, we get used to odors very quickly and after a while the odor disappears because we become habituated to it.