Here's How You Can Use Fragrance to Strengthen Memory and Remember Precious Moments Forever
If you've ever caught a whiff of a fragrance and had your memory instantly transported back to another time and place, then you've experienced the incredible power of scent.
Pinrose fragrance cofounder Erika Shumate created the company with precisely that idea in mind. She happens to be an expert on how smell and memory are profoundly intertwined, so we asked her a few of our most burning questions about the delicate interconnection between thoughts, feelings and fragrance.
Sweety High: How did you first fall in love with fragrance, and how did that lead to the foundation of Pinrose?
Erika Shumate: I've always been obsessed with fragrance and smell because of how they tie to memories and emotions. I would smell something and it would bring me back, or it would make me feel happy or calm me down. They have a really powerful association.
In college, I studied the history of science with an emphasis on smell, also known as olfaction. I learned how smell is studied and how it works in the brain. What's really cool is that smell is housed in the limbic system, which also handles memories and emotions. Those three are tightly connected in your brain, which is why we experience these really visceral moments when a smell brings us back or makes us feel a certain way.
I also loved helping friends find fragrances. There would always be an overwhelming amount of choice, and at the time it was all celebrity and designer-driven brands. But I didn't want to smell like someone else. I wanted to smell like the best version of myself. The inspiration for Pinrose came from that. There was an opportunity to create a brand of high-end fragrances that was also approachable and fun. We make the customer the face of the brand and allow her to celebrate the best version of herself.
SH: What makes Pinrose different from other fragrance brands?
ES: I saw an opportunity to leverage the science I studied and infuse that into the buying experience of fragrances. I studied synaesthesia, which is the inner connection of your sensory processes. We look at colors, shapes, textures and sounds, and those can be interconnected with smells. Using that concept, we've created a quiz you can take on the site where you can select pinks versus greens, or a spiky shape versus a rounded shape, and we suss out your instinctual reactions and show you fragrances that match them.
When a lot of people talk about fragrances they like, it's tricky for them. They'll say they want something fresh, or not too strong, but there isn't a lot of defined vocabulary for fragrance. If someone likes vanilla, do they like a construction that's more like a Picasso or a Monet or a sculpture? There are different arts to vanilla. That's why we try to not use words and use the approach of synaesthesia to help people along. All of the packaging and the colors on the bottle are also meant to be psychological cues to help people understand what they're about to smell.
SH: How exactly does smell travel to our brains?
ES: Smell is called olfaction. There are receptors within your nose in your olfactory bulb, which is part of your nervous system, and that's where smell is translated to the brain. The receptors look at the shape of the molecules coming in as well as the vibrations, and that's how they communicate that scent. You have a certain number of receptors, so when all your receptors get full right away, that's a particularly strong aroma. That's also why, over time, the receptors get full and you become anosmic to the scent, which is a fancy way of saying you can't smell it anymore. Once that gets triggered, it's a hit to the limbic system in your brain, directly from your smell processing center to your memories and to emotion. There's no stopping point along the way, and that's why you have such a visceral and immediate reaction.
SH: What kinds of memories are usually associated with scent?
ES: It depends on the person. Vanilla is one of the most widely loved fragrances because most homes throughout the world use vanilla in baking, and usually that coincides with happy times—a birthday or holiday. The associations between memory and the vanilla scent are positive ones, so ones that are cozy, familial and positive, for the most part.
But let's say you grew up and you had a really mean teacher who always wore rose. Now, whenever you smell rose you might have a bad association. But since your whole life involves creating these new associations with every scent you put into memory, over time you can train yourself to like rose by wearing it to different events or with different people to build positive associations. It's a pretty powerful tool.
SH: With that direct connection in mind, how can we use scent to strengthen our memories?
ES: Rose has been found to help memory recall, so it's great for memorizing and studying. I used to use rose oil for my history tests when I was studying, and then I'd use it again when I was actually taking the test to create a similar environment. It can be used for personal events, too. Maybe it's your last summer before you go to college and you want to always remember it. You can pick a fragrance and wear it every day, and then stop. Then in the future, you be able to go back and smell it to conjure up that time in your life.
SH: What are some of your favorite memories tied to scent?
ES: One of my earliest smell memories is my dad coming in on a hot summer's day after mowing the lawn and picking me up. I remember the smell of grass, and my dad, and sweat, and the hot summer sun. I remember having this really happy moment with my dad. It's one of my favorite memories.
I also identify a lot of my friends by different fragrances they wore during certain times. I have a lot of associations with high school memories, and I'll know precisely what year and season it was because I can recall that a friend was wearing a lot of Marc Jacobs. It helps me to place the time and the event.
I also had a pretty big wedding when I got married a couple of years ago. I was stressing out about whether everything had to match. Even for an event like prom, you might wonder if your scent has to match your dress, and if that has to match your flowers. It's overwhelming. I realized that I knew how I wanted to feel, and I wanted to find a scent that did that for me, so I created Sun Saint. It's relaxing and calming and reminds me of really happy days after I've been at the beach and I'm getting ready to go out at night. It's a calm vacation feeling. That's how I wanted to feel, so that's how the scent was created. It was really special because it was for me. I think that can apply to other people, too.
SH: Any words of fragrance advice?
ES: When you're looking for fragrances, it's helpful to be educated about them. You'll find stuff that you really like, and then all of a sudden it becomes a staple in your wardrobe. You can start styling yourself with your scent. A lot of women biologically style their fragrances based on their mood, or the time or year, or even the time of the month. Learning to trust your own intuition about what you want to wear is important for your own sense of self and confidence and I think it can be a really cool way that's just for you, to honor your own needs and not to worry about other people.
Don't get stressed out about finding one scent you have to wear for the rest of your life. If you want to do that, that's fine, but don't let that be an expectation. Fragrance is so much fun and there's so much emotion you can access using fragrance, so that's all the more reason to love more than just one.
If you liked this interview, click HERE to find out what happened when we tried "Intention Scenting" with Pinrose fragrances for a week.