Scent and Classical Conditioning: Pair Scent and Emotion with Evoke

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Evoke: The Science of Scent, Emotion and Classical Conditioning

By Jessica Cobb, Certified Aromatherapist

Obviously, here at Plant Therapy, we love scents. We’re lucky enough to live with so many amazing essential oil scents every day! Scent packs a powerful punch because of a psychological phenomenon called classical conditioning.

So what’s classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a kind of learning that had a major influence on psychology and how we understand the brain. It was originally discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, maybe you’ve heard of the phrase ‘Pavlov’s dogs?’ Classical conditioning works by pairing an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

Classical conditioning pairs a neutral signal before a naturally occurring reflex. In Pavlov’s well-known experiment with his dogs, the neutral signal was the sound of a tone and the reflex was drooling in response to food. By pairing the neutral stimulus with the environmental stimulus (presenting the dog’s food), the sound of the tone alone made the dogs drool, even without there being any food around.

Ok, that sounds very confusing. Here it is a little simpler: Classical conditioning works by pairing one thing with another until those two things become linked forever in your mind.

Examples of classical conditioning

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and EmotionKnow how you can’t even stand the smell of your ex-boyfriend’s Axe body spray? That’s classical conditioning.

Do you have a specific food that makes you instantly sick when you smell it? Maybe because you ate or drank too much of it as a young child, or because that one Chinese place in college gave you food poisoning. That feeling of nausea is your classically conditioned response to that food’s scent.

The smell of your mother’s perfume bringing a rush of the feelings of comfort and love is another great example.

The three stages of scent and classical conditioning

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and EmotionStage 1: Pre-conditioning:

In this phase, no new pairs have been made between a response and anything else. Instead, you have a naturally-occurring stimulus (like your mother) and a naturally occurring response (how warm and comfortable you feel around her).

  • Natural stimuli: Something that already exists and gives you good feelings
  • Natural response: The good feelings you feel towards the natural stimuli.

We’re going to focus on pairing this natural response with new stimuli. In this case, the scent of your mom’s perfume.

Stage 2: During Conditioning:

During this second part of the classical conditioning process, a new stimulus that hasn’t been paired with anything yet (like your mom’s perfume) is paired with the already existing responses, like the feeling of warmth and care you feel around her.

This stage works best when you can pair your new stimulus with the old one more than once. A great example of this is that every time you hug your mom, you smell her perfume and feel loved.

Stage 3: After Conditioning:

Now the new pair has been formed in your brain, your mother’s perfume now makes you feel warm and comforted, even when all you’re smelling is the scent itself.

The role of scent and classical conditioning

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and EmotionThe perception of scent is the brains most powerful tool for pairing stimuli and responses with memory.

It works like this: Remember your ex-boyfriend’s Axe body spray? When you smell it now you remember him (and how obnoxious he was) don’t you?

Well, the scent of his body spray became paired in your memory with that person. And this happens for all of us! That’s why your mom’s perfume on a scarf can give you those same great feeling of comfort and love.

In other words, certain fragrances give you good feelings because they remind you of good times or people you love, like your mom’s perfume. And certain smells (like Axe body spray) are paired with negative memories.

Plus, science has found that the scents most likely to evoke happy feelings are one that puts you and your family in a good mood (3).

Using Evoke to create emotions with scent

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and Emotion

So how can you make Evoke work in your home, to create intentional deep connections?

We know that you can repeatedly pair a chosen scent with good feelings or memories already occurring in your home to create these powerful paired connections in your brain.

Use Excite as a chic handmade perfume to make your boyfriend miss you when you’re on a work trip.

Diffuse Jubilation during the holiday season every year on Christmas Eve to pair those feelings of hope and anticipation for Christmas morning with the distinctive scent.

Use Verve when you’re entertaining your friends for game or movie night, and soon everyone will say ‘what’s that smell? It smells amazing, just like [your name here]’s house!” Your home will become cemented in your loved one’s minds with the unique scent of your choosing.

Sources:

  1. Nalls, G. (2010). Dating, Mating, and Olfaction: Little known side effects of hormone-based birth control. Psychology Today.
  2. Furlow, F. (1996). The Smell of Love. Psychology Today.
  3. Lafta, A. (2015). How Our Sense Of Smell Makes Us Fall In Love And Stay In Love. Elite Daily.

41 thoughts on “Evoke: The Science of Scent, Emotion and Classical Conditioning”

  1. I am so glad I seen this article. I was curious what would be the best ways to use the new scents. I can’t wait to order some!

  2. I love this post! When we used to visit my great aunt and uncle at their old farmhouse, there was a distinct scent to it and every once in a while I will catch the same smell (usually in older homes) and it immediately brings me back to “the farm” and enjoying Boston coolers with my siblings!

  3. This is so cool! I love experimenting with oils and now there is a whole new world to try. Can’t wait to start the journey, thank you for detailing this out.

  4. I’ve often wondered if someone would remember the conditioning aroma of my home. Now i’m dying to try some of the Evoke line this coming week while there’s a promotion. I’m hopeful the conditioning aroma will be one to remember (for the good) to all that enter my home, or are around me!

  5. I bought the Evoke line as soon as it came out, I love it! Thanks for the helpful blog posts too! They really helped identify what was in the oils and what they would be best for!

  6. Oh, this is so true! When I was around preschool age we had a bunch of geraniums in our backyard. I caught some stomach bug that kicked in while I was playing in the geraniums. (Suffice it to say it was a mess) Now I can’t even get a hint of the smell of geraniums without my stomach and bowels hurting!

  7. I like how you think PT! Conditioning can be a very useful tool. I have so many good memories tied to scents. It is also good to keep in mind the opposite can occur too. For instance during the stages of grief, it is better to grieve without the oils for the first few days so as not to condition the brain to be reminded of grief and sadness when smelling a particular oil or blend.

  8. This reminds me of an interesting story of my own. I cannot drink chamomile. I would love to and have tried many times throughout my life, but I can’t drink more than one sip before saying, nope! When I was very young, I would guess 4 years old, I was playing outside on a warm day. It was such a lovely day and I remember it so well… because of what came next. I had become thirsty after all of the fun and saw my cup of fruit punch sitting on the bench. It had a lid on it. I happily ran up and took a nice big drink of the punch, and it had a taste that is etched into my memory. I looked inside and there were probably 100 ants either floating in the punch or trying to climb out of the cup. I hadn’t thought about that day for years, until I was around 20 and tried chamomile tea for the first time. It was the exact same taste!

    1. Wow! That’s quite a memory! I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to drink chamomile tea without thinking of it now, uh oh! 🙂

  9. I find this to be so true! At night when I’m diffusing Sleep Aid or Sleep Tight or even relax, I immediately associate the scents with sleep now. It’s like the scent is telling my brain that it’s time for rest. I found that the scents continue to become progressively more therapeutic with continued use because of the power of the olfactory sense! There’s not a night that I don’t have a Blend for Sleep or relaxing being diffused, and not a day that I wake up and don’t start with Citrus Burst or another uplifting Blend!

  10. This make be want to try the Thrive collection even more. Pavlov’s dog was one of the only things I remember about high school psychology.

  11. Oh wow, this is such an interesting read! Never thought about the science behind the comfort that you get from a familiar scent!

  12. What an interesting article! Love it! One of my favorite scents is vanilla. It feels like a warm hug to me! And it probably has to do with my mom baking for us a child.

  13. Thanks for the article, my students always laugh because I always walk around with big noisy keys (conditioning) and then they wonder how I manage to sneak up behind them when they are doing something they shouldn’t. I have told them many times I simply hold my keys while walking and they don’t expect me to appear “quietly”… still works everytime though.

    The only Evoke oil I have is Zest. Anyone found a favorite use for it?

  14. I had heard that this worked with taking exams. Wear the same scent while studying then during the test to promote improved recall of information. It seemed to help me in college.

  15. I’m such a science geek….more of this please! LOVED IT! Can’t wait to try this new product. Putting it in my next order!

  16. Such a deep article. Loved it and can relate. There is a type of chicken and garlic that I loved eating growing up. Several times that my mom made it I was sick and now that smell reminds me of those times even though I have had good memories associated with it. My husband does not eat corn, it reminds him of the one time he had food poisening when he was little.

  17. I enjoyed reading this article. I like the idea of intentionally planting some scent seeds for my family — to associate with plenty of fell-good experiences and create multi-sensorial memories

  18. What a interesting article! I knew that I was connected to certain scents from my childhood but I never knew the science behind it! Awesome read!

  19. This really works! Since I have been using essential oils for therapeutic reasons, my husband is beginning to respond favorably to the aromas. When he hugs me he tells me that I smell “earthy” and that he likes it 🙂 I recently purchased the Zest blend (I love it!) and made a perfume using carrier oil. I don’t think it will be long before he loves it too! Thank you Plant Therapy!

  20. Love the ideas for using the Evoke scents. I am going to try them as a scent and also add my own additions to make them uniquely my own. The connection of scent is one I had heard before but I’ve never thought to intentionally make it!

  21. So one application would be I am diffusing peppermint oil while my students are studying for a specific test and diffuse it again while they are taking it they are more likely to recall the information? What would the best oil/blend in the classroom be?

  22. I would like to try the Evoke line as a perfume, but is there are way to wear it without preservatives added? Can I make small batches for example and delute it at higher %? Or there is a better way to do so?

    1. Ana, if you add Evoke with alcohol and not the witch hazel, you will not need to use a preservative. You can also choose to dilute it with a carrier oil, although the aroma will not last as long. Each bottle of Evoke has the dilution rate on it and we recommend not going past that percentage, regardless of the batch size. I hope this helps!

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