Memories and fragrance are one of the strongest evocative links within our bodies and minds, according to experts. Venkatesh Murthy - a leading Harvard neuroscientist -  says that smells are processed by a body part (the olfactory bulb) that has a direct route to the section of our brain that deals with emotion. This makes scent, along with taste, a sense that is strongly shaped by our memories.

If you think about one of your favourite smells - whether it’s pumpkin spice, green pines, Christmas cake or even a specific cologne - the likelihood is that you’ll be transported back to a specific moment in your life. 

There’s a scientific study to show how fragrances are linked to memory. In 2017, a report published in Cerebral Cortex showed that our brain was able to access certain long term memories by unlocking them through scent. In fact, this 2013 study showed that there was more activity in the brain when associated with the scent of a rose compared to the sight of a rose. 

We surveyed over 1000 people from the PartyLite community to ask them about scents, nostalgia and what they love about home fragrance. Keep reading to see what we found out.

Where does fragrance take you back to?Where does fragrance take you back to?

How do fragrance and nostalgia combine?

That scents are so linked to childhood for the people we surveyed is no coincidence. Leela Magavi is a psychiatrist, she told VeryWell Mind that “Smell and emotion intertwine and can be saved in the brain’s software for years.” And it doesn’t just take people back to their childhoods, “Scents that soothed children can continue to alleviate stress and anxiety for the entirety of adulthood,” according to Magavi. 

We spoke to frequent PartyLite fragrance collaborator Dominique Bouley about the evocative power of fragrance. She’s the Chief Perfumer at world-leading perfumery Sozio. Bouley has developed some beautiful PartyLite fragrances over the years, including Elderflower & Mint. We asked her about the inspiration behind the scent she says is her favourite she’s ever created.

“It was inspired by a hot summer walk in the English countryside, along hedgerows of luxurious blooming elderflowers and beautiful tiny cottages lined with borders of garden mint,” she said “When creating this scent, I wanted to capture the contrast of the heady and honeyed floral, the fruity apple aroma of the blossoms alongside the green coolness of the sweet mint leaves.”

With over 30 years experience in the fragrance industry, Bouley understands the importance of nostalgia when creating a new fragrance. She went on to tell us about her favourite evocative scents from her childhood - “A beloved memory of mine is picking chestnuts in my family home’s backyard in Versailles.”

“While scavenging for them, the aroma of wet autumnal earth mixed with musty fallen leaves filled my nose. Nowadays, every time I smell patchouli oil with its humid, earthy and woody notes, it takes me back to these nostalgic cheerful memories.”

Dawn Goldworm is a perfume expert who has worked with Bouley on fragrance projects. She agrees with Magavi’s sentiment when it comes to the power of aromas. “Later in life, when you smell something, you are brought back to a specific moment or event,” she told ELLE. “You remember how you feel. If it makes you feel good, you keep it.” 

When we asked our community if any fragrances remind them of specific memories, many of the answers were beautifully sentimental:

“When I think of my childhood, I think of those early mornings making breakfast where all I could smell was coffee and toast mixed with my father’s cologne.”

“Cut grass and fir takes me back to those beautiful summer days where we’d play outside and make cabins out of branches of fir trees!”

“Anything infused with lavender or patchouli reminds me of shopping trips with my Mother, where she’d take me into beauty stores and I’d take in all the gorgeous perfumes on every counter.”

“Sandalwood reminds me of an old flame from a long, long time ago!”

“I’m obsessed with popcorn thanks to my Dad. When I was small, before each film he made popcorn in a frying pan with a homemade caramel that we poured on top. Every week we had popcorn and today I maintain that tradition with my son and my husband, popcorn and a movie every weekend.”

“The scent of strawberries takes me back to my childhood, where I was once allowed to eat so many strawberries from a huge bowl that I couldn't eat any more!”

“Fresh summer rain reminds me of a time when we rode our bikes home quickly from swimming in the lake with a thunderstorm approaching.”

“Blackberries take me straight back to when I used to go berry-picking with my family, before taking them all home to make delicious jam.”

We also asked them to name their top three fragrances that bring back good memories. Judging by the answers above, it’s unsurprising that many of these aromas were linked to their childhoods, family members or summertime.

Our community's top ten memory-led fragrancesOur community's top ten memory-led fragrances

Although many of the people we surveyed chose Christmas or autumn aromas as their favourites, there’s a scientific reason that summer scents are so popular. 

Avery Gilbert is a psychologist who specialises in fragrance, he says that “Summertime is a time of maximal smells, it’s the biggest bouquet.” Scents that we associate with the summer season take on an emotional meaning, generally because we’re often smelling them for the first time during those seminal moments. “The smells of summer are a common backdrop for the good times that most people associate with summer” says Gibson, “so when we smell them again, we’re recalling past good times and anticipating new pleasant experiences.” 

Scents have even helped to bring artwork to life. In 2015 the Tate Gallery opened its Sensorium, where visitors were able to touch, taste, hear and smell four modern art pieces. They worked with International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) to recreate the scent of hairspray for Richard Hamilton’s Interior II.

IFF is one of the leading perfume houses PartyLite works with every season to bring our audience the world’s finest fragrances. Their experts are the reason our evocative and fruity Raspberry Rhubarb forms smell so much like summer, and why Evergreen Fir smells just like walking through a wintry forest.

PartyLite has worked with Gail Fowler-Krell, a Senior Perfumer at IFF, on a number of our fragrances throughout the years. Her favourite way to create and develop a scent is to marry her culinary arts degree with her perfumer experience. “Fragrances that are warm and cosy, and make you want to cuddle up under a blanket to watch a classic film are some of my favourites to develop,” she told us.

When it comes to the fragrances that take her back to nostalgic memories, she has plenty that still inspire her:

“One of my favourite things about working with fragrance ingredients is that they can connect you to beloved experiences and memories.  Some of my favourites are: 

Tobacco Leaf – The smell of tobacco leaf, like when the canister was first opened back in the day, takes me back to riding in my grandfather’s car.   

Spices  – I love classic baking spices (ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) and discovering new, exotic spices like turmeric, coriander, & cumin. I love figuring out how to create a new dish with them.  

Tomato Leaf – As an avid gardener, every time I smell tomato leaf, it reminds me of rubbing the leaves between my fingers while I’m tending to them. 

Fir Balsam – Who doesn’t love the scent of a freshly cut Christmas tree?  We go every year in the mountains west of New York City and cut down our own tree, there’s no better way to keep memory-making each holiday!” 

Our Findings at a Glance

  • The top three nostalgic fragrances that take people back to a beloved memory are:
    Sun Lotion
    Freshly Cut Grass
  • 29% of people say warming fragrances like vanilla or cinnamon help them relax the most.
  • 48% of people say Fruity fragrance is their favourite type.
  • 46% of people say Fruity fragrances help lift their mood.
  • 24% of people are willing to try something new each time they buy fragrances.

When it comes to the PartyLite community’s favourite fragrance, there was an overwhelming type that they preferred:

Fruity scents are the most loved by our communityFruity scents are the most loved by our community

From PartyLite’s fragrances, the fruity blend of Mulberry is extremely popular among our audience, with dozens of our community naming it as the fragrance they couldn’t live without. For some, it’s always been part of their lives:  

“Mulberry reminds me so much of my childhood. My mother loved the scent even when I was in kindergarten.”

Another fruity fragrance stood out when we asked which specific scents were a must-have: the classic and best-selling Fig Fatale. Its creator is Laura Raith, the Senior Perfumer at industry-leading fragrance house Givaudan, said Fig Fatale is her favourite aroma that she’s ever developed.

“It’s a perfect and happy combination of ripe fig, peach type notes, watery apple, and wild currant, along with creamy sweet and spicy notes.” She says. “It's an iconic fragrance that is loved by so many, and that makes me so happy. The reason that this fragrance travels well though different forms is because it has a very strong, clear signature.”

When it comes to fragrance nostalgia, many of her scent memories come from her mother, “Rose and sweet powdery notes from my mother’s perfumes are so evocative for me, as well as the floral orris in her lipstick. I’ll never forget the vintage purse she used to snap open to take out a white floral tissue.”

For our survey-takers, fruity fragrances weren’t the only delicious blends that brought great memories. Marshmallow Vanilla’s sweet, gourmand aroma inspired plenty of nostalgia.

“Marshmallow Vanilla takes me straight back to my childhood, surrounded by the scents of my grandparents’ bakery.”

“It’s the scent of childhood at the carnival.”

“I love it so much that I chose it as the fragrance for my wedding!”

Whatever aroma our community named in their answers, it was clear that each person’s favourite held a special memory, and helped bring them back to special moments in their lives. 

Fragrance and mood are linked, the science says so

In terms of the links between fragrance and mood, studies have shown that certain aromas change the way people’s brains work. In 2014, the Takasago Corporation in Japan found that spelling errors were reduced by over 50% after they pumped the scent of lemon through their offices (jasmine reduced them by 33%, and lavender by 20%, in case you were wondering!). 

A 2005 journal written by the IFF showed their studies into the effects of fragrances on people’s moods. They developed a way to measure this called Mood Mapping, a four mood associative technique that clearly showed how people reacted to certain scents. 

They found that fragrances like clementine and vanilla were two of the scents that achieved the highest moods in their subjects. And while the citrusy aroma stimulated them, vanilla lowered their stress level while keeping them just as happy. These are the types of fragrances that have the power to relax, especially when used in aromatherapy.

We all have specific fragrances that help us relax, whether they’re warming, earthy, fresh, floral or aromatic. Our community love to use fragrances to help them achieve a relaxed state, but the results are much more varied compared to the scents that help them lift their mood:

Which fragrances help the PartyLite audience relax the most?Which fragrances help the PartyLite audience relax the most?

People love buying fragrances for their home

Of course, we couldn’t help wondering how people’s love of fragrance affects their buying habits, and how they choose to add fragrance to their lives. When it comes to real-world buying habits, the PartyLite community were consistent in why they chose to purchase fragrances for their homes. 

Buying fragrances for the home - our habitsBuying fragrances for the home - our habits

Over half of them buy home fragrance at least once a month, nearly 25% buy it around once a year, while over 10% of our survey-takers buy aromas for their homes at least once a week. Nearly two thirds of our community purchase home fragrance to refresh their homes, an answer consistent with how passionately they express how scents make them feel. 

Want to be part of a community of fragrance like this one? You can learn more about sharing your own passion for fragrance (and even earning some extra cash) here

At PartyLite, we’re just as passionate about the power of scents as our community. Check out our latest collection of home fragrance here, and find more of our survey content on our blog page here.

Josh Millar