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The Science of Neighbourhoods: Summerhill and the Neuroscience of Smell
Erene Stergiopoulos: How smelling stuff can change your mood and memory

Toronto doesn’t really have a “Little France.” There’s no neighbourhood where people carry baguettes under their arms, and we have no streets where moustachioed accordionists sway amid patio cigarette smoke. Our French bakeries are scattered around the city – and that’s probably a good thing for everyone. But then again, we do have Summerhill.

At a midpoint between Rosedale, Forest Hill, and Yorkville, Summerhill is where you’ll find one of largest concentrations of neighbourhood French fare. You’ll see little bistro chairs lining the patios, and pastel-coloured macarons at the windows. You could totally imagine Julia Childs hanging out here, throwing flour around and charmingly dropping beef bourguignon on the floor. Needless to say, everything here also smells amazing.

What we don’t often consider is how smells can alter our mood, memory, and attention span. While some things might smell great, it turns out they slow our brains down, and make it harder for us to retrieve certain events or facts from memory.

Take lavender, for example. In one study, participants who breathed in lavender essential oils were slower than people who weren’t exposed to scents on tests of memory and attention. They also showed deficits in their working memory, which is the ability to juggle multiple pieces of information at the same time.

But the news isn’t all bad as far as smells go. In the same study, another group of participants was asked to smell rosemary essential oils. The rosemary allowed them to form more accurate memories, but it also made them slower at remembering. Luckily, both the rosemary and the lavender scents put participants in a good mood.

How about ylang-ylang? Apart from being that ingredient in 90s shampoo commercials that made the product sound more sophisticated, it also increases calmness and slows your brain down. And it makes sense – those ladies massaging their heads with ylang-ylang infused shampoo with their eyes closed did look pretty chilled out. But beware: the scent also makes you less alert, so if you’re hoping to concentrate and get some work done, that shampoo might be a bad idea.

Peppermint does the opposite. It makes your memory better, and makes you more alert. As an added bonus, peppermint is also a great way to keep mice out of your house (ahem, I’ve had to use it recently): the smell is overpowering for mice, but it’s a mood-lifted and cognitive enhancer for us.

Although we’re often unaware of how scents affect us, stores and clubs use them improve customers’ experiences. One field study compared three nightclubs in the Netherlands, where each club used either orange, seawater, or peppermint scent. Compared to nights where the scents weren’t used, diffusing the good smells increased dancing activity and improved customers’ moods and ratings of the music and the night overall.

Sure, there are no nightclubs in Summerhill – but if they opened one, there would be so much dancing. As it is, walking down that strip of Yonge will probably put you in a good mood, whether it’s the smells or all the French pastries you’ve just put in your body.


Erene Stergiopoulos writes for Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter @fullerenes.

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