The use of various fragrances to influence the human psyche and emotions has a long and rich tradition, with studies to broaden our understanding of these effects spanning many centuries.
Marestheus, a Greek physician, wrote several books about the effects one incurred when wearing chaplets or garlands of various leaves and flowers. He noted that some combinations caused fatigue and depression, while other combinations seemed to refresh and encourage the wearer.
All classification systems, whether they are systems to understand the effects of scents on emotions or systems to classify the scents by their similarities, have been rejected by the scientific community. The inability to duplicate the anticipated results in a laboratory has led to this rejection. Both trained and untrained volunteers have been involved in experiments, but reactions to fragrances are so subjective that a system has not yet been proven to present a unified theory of olfaction, or scent.
Theophrastus, in his writing, complained that odors were not effectively classified:
"We speak of an odor as pungent, powerful, faint, sweet or heavy, though some of these descriptions apply to evil-smelling things as well as to those which have a good odor."
Laboratory tests consistently prove that the sense of smell is subjective. Even though there is some agreement about whether an odor smells foul or fragrant, there is almost no way the individual odor can be placed into a specific fragrance category since different people will describe it in different ways.
Some researchers speculate that this phenomenon is caused by odor "imprinting." Certain smells will remind us of people, places, things, or happenings. For some reason, odors seem to affect our memory and maybe even our learning process.
The science of the sense of smell is fascinating. With the discovery of pheromones (scent signals released by insects and mammals to communicate with others in their species), the science is undergoing a revival of interest. The question most asked by researchers is whether humans also release pheromones, and if we do release these scent signals, what messages are we sending and receiving?
The lack of a satisfactory odor classification system is complicating the work being done by researchers. However, Dr. John Amoore is making progress in attempting to define "primary odors" which would correspond to the primary tastes. Everything we eat and drink is flavored, either singly or in combinations of four primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. By identifying primary odors, a scientifically valid odor classification system could be established. It would then be possible for researchers to study the effects of fragrance by tracing the brain activity and noting the body's physiological response to each primary odor. Because the sense of smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than the sense of taste, it could be a long time before we have a complete understanding of odors and their effects.
Even though his method is not absolute, the emotional classification system developed by Dr. Paul Jellinek, a perfumer, may be the best guide to the effects of scent on emotion. Jellinek's categories cover basic and positive human reactions caused by certain types of scents.
Jellinek's first category includes materials with aphrodisiacal effects. These materials have blunt and intense odors, with waxy, fatty, alkaline or rancid overtones. Unless diluted, their odors are usually unpleasant. When diluted, they bloom into low, sweet, deep, and warm fragrances suggestive of body scents. The effect can be arousing. These materials were treasured by ancient people and have been used for thousands of years. Musk, having a strong, lasting odor, is the most familiar material in this category. There are few plant materials containing musk-like compounds which can be used in potpourri. Ambrette seeds, costus root, and Canada snake root are probably the best plant materials to use for this effect.
Sweet, heady, soft fragrance materials, such as flowers and balsams, create a feeling of languor and relaxation. These materials, which can dull our senses and slow physical reactions, fall into the category of narcotic-intoxicating. Too much of this type of material can cause headaches and nausea.
Mints, evergreens, citrus, and camphor scents can stimulate, awaken, and cause feelings of physical well-being. These fragrances, which belong in the refreshing category, are sharp, clean, high, and piercing. Used in large amounts, these materials will clear sinuses and cause the nose to run.
Jellinek's final category is stimulating, and most seeds, stalks, roots, woods, mosses, and even some leaves belong in this group. These materials have dry, spicy, and bitter odors. Their effect is said to provoke intellectual and physical stimulation.
When you work with fragrant materials, you will find that some materials will have qualities of more than one category. These will make wonderful blenders. Using materials from more than one category can smooth the differences in a potpourri. Combining materials from the aphrodisiacal and intoxicating categories, and from the refreshing and stimulating categories, will accent and intensify their effects. Since categories one and three or two and four are in disagreement, such a blend will be complicated in effect. It is important that you keep this effect in mind when you are creating a potpourri. Use materials based on the desired effect and intended purpose of the blend.
Although perfumers are limited in the range of effects considered acceptable, you do not have this limitation and your potpourri products can be created with special fragrances to fit every room in your home. Kitchen blends can be sweet and spicy, fruity, or citrus-like. Try refreshing mints, evergreens, or even lemon blends for the bathroom. Make variations on a theme, creating blends that are alike for the living room and bedrooms. The decorative living room basket could contain a refreshing floral scent with a citrus note. In the bedroom try a similar floral with a hint of musk.
To help you in your exploration of fragrance, we've provided a number of formulas that you can experiment with to create your own individual scent.