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Synthetic Aromas - Data Drain On Our Brain?

Post by Sandy Powell on March 21, 2014

Synthetic Aromas - Data Drain On Our Brain?

I posted a report on a chronology of how aromas went from all 100% natural to less than 20% natural in about 100 years. It’s intended to be a factual account of how it progressed. This segment is part of a series of blogs expressing my opinions , thoughts and observations about this subject; some of which may be obvious while others are not…

There is worldwide focus on synthetic aromas regarding their safety and composition. While this will be the subject of a few more blogs, I don’t think there is much attention paid to another glaring issue and that is the sheer number of aromas the human brain must now process.

Fragrant Rose

Our sense of smell helps us to understand and interpret the chemistry and basic elements of the outside world. It is also the one sense which we have virtually no control over. We can’t shut it off. You can close your eyes, plug your ears, avoid eating, refuse to touch, but you smell continuously with every breath. You even smell when you sleep. I suppose you could hold your breath, but that would only work for a short period of time without dire consequences.

Our world is surrounded by the aromas of everyday events and things such as flowers in the garden, the air after a rainfall plus the wet dog that got caught in the rain; a baby’s soiled diaper, freshly cut grass, clean smell of a bar of soap or a home cooked meal. Some pleasant; some foul, but all of them familiar, identified and accepted by this primal sense.

It is known that, on average, over 10,000 aromas can be deciphered by the human brain which means that you can recall feelings, physiological reactions and memories for most of them. For every aroma we inhale, a complex interaction occurs. Extensive studies at the *Monell Centre, have proven that we have tiny cells referred to as olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal cavity which translate chemical information from an aroma into electrical data used by nerves in the limbic area of the brain. This is at the core of understanding reactions to aromas such as the smell of bubblegum propelling you back to an event in your childhood, the mouthwatering reaction to baked bread or the fresh smell of flowers to trigger an aphrodisiac response.

Our brain is like a super computer, processing responses such as these for every thing our nose encounters. It is immediate and happens with every scent we inhale, whether we realize it or not. It is now roughly estimated that there are over 60,000 aromas which did not exist 100 years ago; most being synthetic. Not all are for the production of cosmetics and perfumes. Many are used to mask the unpleasant odors of other products, while some were created as a result of manufacturing new chemicals.

We are involuntarily exposed to and then have to process information on all of these new aroma combinations. Just think of the average person’s day; wake up to the aromas of fabric softener on towels, air freshener plug ins, shampoo, body wash, conditioner, hair gels, deodorant, face cream, body lotion and perfume, and that’s the first 20 minutes of your day!

Add in floor, tub, tile and glass cleaners, laundry, dish and dishwasher soap, because clever marketing tells us we need all these different products if we want to be clean. Everything else you encounter during the day has some form of aroma chemical mix that your poor old nose is forced to inhale, compute, decipher and send messages to your brain. Tired after shopping? You just encountered several thousand aromas which your brain had to register in addition to all of its many other tasks. You need only go back 30 years or so to see that the average person would not have been exposed to even a fraction of these aromas.

Our limbic system, the part responsible for much of our aromatic registry, is one of the only parts of the brain which has not evolved to catch up with the complex nature and burgeoning numbers of aromas in the last century. I am not sure what will happen to it in the distant future but I think it would be an interesting area of anthropological study.

It is also worthy of note that many conditions of the autonomic nervous system such as chronic fatigue, stress, headaches, migraines, anxiety and depression have sharply increased since the 70’s. I know that there are many contributing factors but it is also around the time that mass marketed products with heavy synthetic aromas started to bombard modern society; coincidence?

No wonder we’re all mentally fatigued. Pretty soon we will be suffering so badly with aroma data overload, our brains won’t even have enough energy to wake up and smell the coffee… And that would be sad, very sad.

Sandy Powell

*Monell Chemical Senses Center, a non-profit scientific institute devoted to research on taste, smell, and chemosensory irritation.

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