A French Company Wants to Use Scents to Bring Back Memories of Your Loved Ones

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It's a 21st-century message in a bottle: One company has discovered how to put memories right in your nose. 

After watching her mother keep a pillowcase to remind her of her late husband's smell, reports Agence France-Presse, 52-year-old businesswoman Katia Apalategui decided to try reproducing the practice using perfume. Now, following years of trial and error, Apalategui and researchers at Université du Havre in France think they've come up with a way to bottle unique human scent, paving the way for individuals to preserve the powerful smells of their loved ones.

While the specific process for production is still under wraps, Geraldine Savary, a research chemist at Université du Havre, explained the basics. "We take the person's clothing and extract the [odor], which represents about a hundred molecules, and we reconstruct it in the form of a perfume in four days," she told AFP.

According to Apalategui, her product will provide "olfactory comfort." She believes it can also be used by couples as a Valentine's Day gift or by children away from home, AFP reports. The product is on the pricy side: Apalategui says it will sell for about $600 per unit.

Source: LIONEL CIRONNEAU/AP

Why smell is so powerful: Smell is one of our strongest senses, and it's firmly tied to memory. 

How many times has the scent of an old shirt or stuffed animal brought back emotionally rich sensations from our childhoods? This is known as the "Proust phenomenon," after the passage in Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time that finds the narrator flooded with memories after he dips a cookie into tea. 

Smell can help us remember life stories with more detail — and more emotion. Rachel Herz, a cognitive neuroscientist at Brown University, found that subjects felt a stronger emotional response recalling memories prompted by specific scents, she told Jewish World Review in 2004.

We can use our sense of smell to make sense of the world around us. Just ask graphic designer Kate McLean, who uses scents to create "smell maps" of cities around the world.

The science of scent is fascinating: Thanks to science, we now know how smell is translated into memory in the brain and why it's so potent. 

A 2014 study, led by researchers from Rockefeller University and published in the journal Science, found that humans can differentiate between 1 trillion olfactory stimuli — far more than was ever thought. (For comparison, humans are only able to distinguish between a few million colors and about half a million tones, researchers reported.)

When it comes to memory, however, there's more than just our capacity to detect different scents at work. The hippocampus, which helps the brain store new memories, is located next to the "olfactory bulb," the part of the brain that processes smell.

The BBC's Tom Stafford explains further

"If we look at the major pathways travelled by the other senses, such as hearing and vision, they start at the sense organs — that is, the eyes or the ears — and move to a relay station called the thalamus, before passing on to the rest of the brain.

With smell the situation is different. Rather than visiting the thalamic relay station on its journey into the brain, smell information travels directly to the major site of processing — the olfactory bulb — with nothing in between."

Smell can have a real impact on our relationships: Certain smells can have physical effects on us. As Psychology Today reports, lavender and eucalyptus can affect people's breathing and alertness, while lemon "increases people's perception of their own health."  

Cologne and perfume can't trick someone into falling in love with you. They can, however, prompt scent associations that stay lodged in the brain for years. Some scientists believe that women can use smell to determine genetic compatibility in men.

In short, scent is one powerful sense. Apalategui may have been inspired by her mother, but the draw of her unusual creation appeals to anyone who has ever been tossed back in time after smelling something special.

h/t The Guardian