Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It’s the Spritziest Time of the Year

Maria Browning, a perfume enthusiast who blogs at Bittergrace Notes, writes about her recurring impulse to indulge massively in scent:

The madness always comes upon me in the depths of winter, and I can feel it building already. I’ve dabbed or sprayed on at least five different perfumes today. I’ve got scented candles burning and I just spritzed my bedroom with Bal a Versailles. I’ll probably dose the blankets with something else before I go to bed tonight.
This isn’t about her natural curiosity for sampling and collecting scents. It is, she says, about “craving an olfactory smorgasbord.” Wondering whether these “benders” are the result of some weird brain chemistry, Browning searches the Internet (and FirstNerve!) for information but comes up empty.

Even in our drowsy state of pre-Solstice hibernation here at First Nerve Manor this sounded like a challenge. Has anyone examined the link between short day length and the urge to smell?

Some years back we met a interesting psychiatry professor named Teodor Postolache with an interest in Seasonal Affective Disorder and smell. He published a study that examined nostril-by-nostril odor identification ability in SAD patients and healthy controls. The two groups didn’t differ on this measure, but there were intriguing correlations between single nostril performance and measures of depression.

This led Postlache to a second study, in which odor sensitivity of SAD patients was measured once in winter (the depressive season) and again the following summer (the “up” season). Surprisingly there was no seasonal difference in olfactory sensitivity. However the SAD patients were significantly more sensitive than the normal controls.
In humans, marked seasonal behavioral rhythms with recurrent winter depression may be associated with a more acute sense of smell.

Hmmm. None of this is definitive but it does make one wonder: Is the perfume bender a form of self-induced mood modulation by the olfactively-inclined? And what does it mean that the holiday season is the biggest time of year for giving fragrance to other people?

[For the record, our scientific ruminations are just that. We do not presume to diagnose our fellow bloggers or even to imply that they require diagnosis. We think perfumes benders sound like a great topic for investigation for the light they might throw on olfactory psychology.]


Scentimental Fool said...

I definitely go on smell benders, and have ever since I was a tween and discovered the fragrance counters at the mall. I liken these smell-a-thons to bingeing when PMSing. When I'm PMSing, I don't just want something salty, I also want something sour, sweet and of course, rich. (This is why the idea of a "signature scent" is so laughable to me; how could you ever choose?) Similarly, if I'm in the mood for a perfume-binge, I might sample a chypre, move on to a huge floral, dab on a bracing green sport scent, and round it all off with a comforting gourmand. Perverted, but it does the trick.

I began collecting vintage fragrances last fall (a ha!), and have amassed a ridiculous number of minis and decants, all of which arrive in groups.

I may ignore them for a while, circling them with an odd nonchalance, but then suddenly, as I did yesterday, I went nuts and sampled at least 6 in the span of 10 minutes. I paid for it the next day with a massive allergic fit that required that I pop an Allegra. The things I do for perfume!

Not sure if this helps in the least, but Maria Browning: you are not alone! And mercifully, this is not yet in the DSM-IV nor has it been categorized, to my knowledge, as an addiction...so sniff on!

Martha said...

Hey! Day length and scent! I was wondering about this recently, when I noticed that my seasonal scent preference shift (away from Light and Refreshing and toward Leathery and Musky and Foody) happened in August and September, well before the weather actually changed, but after day length started to shrink.

I Googled a study of meadow voles that demonstrated that the voles like each other's scent better in winter, when it's appropriate to nest together, and less in summer, when it's not. And that the preference could be induced by changing day length in the lab.

So maybe humans also have an increased tolerance for sweaty, musky fellow humans in the winter, when they need to share sheltered space with other humans? (And maybe animals, too, if we're talking an evolutionary preference.) It's a totally ungrounded theory on my part, but there it is.

(I was also theorizing reduced serotonin levels = carbohydrate cravings (I believe this is an already documented link) = cravings for sweet, foody scents.)


+ Q Perfume Blog said...

Dear Avery, thank you for this article.
I was for days thinking of asking you a question about my cravings...and there you write about the subject.
The year of 2009 was a powdery crazyness for me. I have searched, bought and craved for powdery perfumes all year long.
What is this???
Last year was musks.
But I feel it am a walking zombie looking for the bottles like they were braaaiiiinnnssss (remeber that horror movie??)

a powdery iris kiss to you dearest!!!

can we start thinking of a new interview for next year?

maybe you, Della, Nathan and me...all the 4 together?

chayaruchama said...

Aren't we a bunch ;-)

Avery, I offer up my cranial vault for your delectation, any time !
[ I've worked in neuroscience for years, at MGH, silly me :0]

I have no SAD- but I'm rummaging through my collection 'like Grant took Richmond'.

So glad sweet Maria got you goin' .

BitterGrace said...

Thank you, Avery! This begins to confirm that there really is a pattern to the shared madness. FWIW, I was diagnosed with SAD at one time, though the problem has become a lot less severe as the years have gone by--maybe because I'm successfully medicating myself with perfume, among other things.

I am intrigued by the idea that a mood disorder might be linked with a more acute sense of smell. We scent freaks do seem to be a pretty mercurial bunch.

Avery Gilbert said...

Scentimental Fool:

Wow. Great description. I’ve been involved in fragrance and olfaction for a long time and have to admit that until now I’d never heard of scent benders. This is fascinating. The next survey I do on scent-related behavior will certainly include some questions about it.

Avery Gilbert said...


Seasonal shifts in preference probably have something to do with how perfumes diffuse in cold/dry winter air versus hot/humid summer air, but I’ve always thought there was more to it.

A heavy, rich, warm, Oriental is very inviting when worn by a woman under a mink blanket on a freezing night in January. The scent reinforces the urge for body heat and close contact. On a stifling, sweaty August night with the cicadas roaring the same fragrance is suffocating, overpowering and off-putting. I like your group-dwelling evolutionary hypothesis because it relates seasonal preference to context.

European starlings use smell to select aromatic plant material for lining their nests (the plant chemicals inhibit growth of nest parasites). Their olfactory bulbs increase in size just before the breeding season to be ready for nest building, then shrivel the rest of the year—why burn metabolism on the nose when it’s not needed?

Avery Gilbert said...

+ Q Perfume:

Interesting—you and Scentimental Fool are opposite ends of the spectrum. Her urge is to smell anything at hand while you seek a specific object of desire—the hallmark of a craving. It’s the difference between wanting to have some chocolate RIGHT NOW versus raiding whatever’s in the fridge.

Ideally, I’d have both of you rate a variety of perfumes every month for a year. My hunch: SF’s ratings for the entire set rise and fall together, while your ratings change selectively.

BTW my longstanding fantasy is to live in the Southern Hemisphere from November through February and up north for the rest. Endless summer!

P.S. The zombies are really after the olfactory bulbs—they spit out your amygdala like an apricot pit.

Avery Gilbert said...


A lot of creative, aesthetically driven people I know ride the mood rollercoaster, but I don’t know the personality literature well enough to run with the idea of moody scent-heads. I’d really like to see some research on personality dimensions and olfactory-related preferences and behavior.

Damn it. Thousands of graduate students and they're never around when you need one.

Lucy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
indieperfumes said...

I've been doing the same thing. I read somewhere that people with the blues (and the Winter tends to get one down with the lack of light and all)tend to be heavy perfume wearers. I've been using Carnal Flower at work lately, tho I was hesitant at first, until people around me said bring it on, so ok...rather surprising. I think they are benefiting too.

Olfacta said...

Instant love for the people you work with, indieperfumes! I'm glad to know that tolerant people still exist somewhere.

So interesting, the comment left about wanting the heavier perfumes while the temperature is still high but the days are shorter. I've noticed a pattern with perfume bloggers and commenters for just that, myself included. Of course our summer here is so long (May to October) that maybe I'm just bored with all the citrus.

Heavier perfumes, heavier clothing, heavier food, heavier, um, body weight in winter; they all seem to go together. For me at least, fragrance is all about mood. Olfactory prozac, you might say.

Nathan Branch said...

Avery -- nice to see you the bloodhounds on a new trail. It's a subject that might be exploring, especially as it seems that no one else seems to have -- that always makes the science journals perk up, doesn't it?

The voles study is fascinating, I agree, because it does point to an instinctual context for our preferences. Instead of just saying, "I like heavier scents in the winter" and moving on, there might actually be a reason for the preference: i.e. we survive harsh conditions better as a group.

Nathan Branch said...

My god, could my comment sound any more garbled?

I meant, "It's nice to the see the bloodhounds on a new trail" and "It's a subject that might be worth exploring" . . . ay yi yi.

Avery Gilbert said...


You may be remembering an Internet factoid flurry from January 2008. A med school professor from Tel Aviv University issued a content-free press release speculating that depressed women might have a reduced sense of smell which might result in them overapplying perfume. The guy's a big playa in autoimmunological disease but as far as I can see has never studied depressed women or their perfume use. Another rank example of drive-by science.

Avery Gilbert said...


Not to worry, dude, voles are confusing.

At least I thought so in my rodent sex days. Meadow voles, prairie voles--more species than you can shake a stick at, each one with a different sociosexual system. Monogamous, polygamous, spontaneous ovulators, induced ovulators, postpartum estrus, lactational estrus, etc.

You can find a vole to defend almost any behavioral thesis . . .

We need to hear from some primate people.

Avery Gilbert said...


"Heavier perfumes, heavier clothing, heavier food, heavier, um, body weight in winter; they all seem to go together."

Truer words were never posted.


+ Q Perfume Blog said...

During winter sometimes I long for fragrances that can give me the sensation of being in summer time, or at the beach. I love olfactive illusions.
Also during summer I like cooling fragrances.
I don't have cravings for heavier stuff during winter, BUT, some fragrances can overwhelm if it is too hot. So I see it more like an opportunity to wear what would be too strong for summer.
I don't get depressed during winter, on the contrary, I feel better during cold periods of the year.
I have quack attacks during PMS. That would give you an opportunity for one entire theses of sociopath behavior influenced by hormones. In those day I don't find any olfactive identity. i also have a weird perfume related behavior.

Avery Gilbert said...

+ Q Perfume:

A "weird perfume related behavior"? I hesitate to ask . . .

P.S. I'll just use my imagination.

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

funny funny naughty boy...or am I the sick one to think you thought of something outrageous???

Avery Gilbert said...

+ Q Perfume:

Me, outrageous? I'm shocked.

On the other hand, the idea that you are twisted enough to think that I would think of something outrageous about you is itself . . . sort of interesting.