Feeling sad? Make toast
Researchers at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom say they have discovered a link between the smell of toast and happiness. Professor Tim Jacobs undertook a study on behalf of the Flour Advisory Bureau to understand why people choose toast as a breakfast staple. He discovered it had less to do with the taste or nutritional content of the food, and more to do with happy memories of childhood meals.
(Scientists in England have given us plenty of studies to chew on lately. We now know how to dance properly. We found out a third of British youth think it's fine to black out after a night of drinking. And we know that to be happy you need to make $75,000 a year. Nothing more, nothing less. But I digress.)
"In childhood when you experience something with a strong emotional reaction valence--it might well be like family breakfast in the kitchen--that would have a huge significance for children," Jacobs said in a phone interview. "It would be a conditioned association whereby the smell of toast becomes associated with that emotional experience."
People refer to this relationship as the "Proust Effect."
Marcel Proust wrote of the "episode of madeleines" in his novel "Remembrance of Things Past." "No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses. ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself."
Many companies want to tap into that elusive connection to happy childhood memories. Marketers and designers have begun to see aroma as the latest frontier in branding. The business, led by companies such as International Flavors & Fragrances and Scent Marketing Institute, are roping companies into creating signature scents that will appeal to their customers. Business Week says the industry is valued at between $80 million and $100 million.
The smell brigade has taken some false steps, most notably with their ill-fated attempt in 2006 to use the smell of cookies to spruce up "Got Milk?" billboards at San Francisco bus stops. Residents complained about the smells being unfair to the homeless, who could not afford to buy cookies.
Now, scent researchers are taking their smells inside people's homes. International Flavors & Fragrances will experiment at a low-income housing development, spraying its fresh-cut grass scent into common areas to see if the aroma will increase the residents' overall optimism. Good Magazine asks if this experiment can possibly be unethical: "Subjecting people (often without their knowledge) to fragrances that affect their emotions and behaviors strikes me as a slippery slope," Siobhan O'Connor writes.
Jacobs said it is perfectly possible to manipulate moods with scents. Vanilla and floral scents often are seen to improve people's moods, as they are generally associated with feelings of reward. He also said hospital patients report fewer medical symptoms if a hospital waiting room has a lemon scent.
Whether the most recent study will result in a spritzing of toast smell around town remains to be seen. Let's just hope they don't burn the toast first.
| September 13, 2010; 11:06 AM ET
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