Fall is officially here and that means it's pumpkin spice season. 

When it comes to pumpkin spice, what’s all the fuss about? Science tells us the aroma triggers our brain’s pleasure and memory centres which can lead to an emotional response when we smell or taste anything pumpkin spice. Here’s how it works. 

The science of scents 

The unmistakable smell of pumpkin spice that makes us crave a pumpkin spice latte is actually not the smell of pumpkins at all. The aromatic blend of spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice - is used in other seasonal treats like Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, so our brain associates it with pumpkins. The flavour has become such a craze that it can now be found in coffees, teas, baked goods, candles and even dog treats. 

The scent reaches deep into the sensory areas of our brain. We associate the tempting fragrance with happiness because it reminds us of pleasant fall rituals like carving pumpkins and going apple picking.

Smell is the sense that is most linked to memory. When we sniff something, the scent travels up our nose to the amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for processing emotions) and to the hippocampus (linked to memory and cognition). Everything we smell goes through the emotion and memory parts of our brain, which explains why we associate smells with certain memories. 

The brain is happy to repeat a memory that brings joy – and we can use this to our benefit, actually improving our mental health and well-being. 

Use scents to boost your well-being 

Research has shown that certain scents have a direct effect on our mood and well-being.  

  • Apples: The smell of this fruit can help ease a migraine by lessening the duration and intensity of headaches. It may also help ease feelings of anxiety. 
  • Cinnamon: A whiff of this spice improves memory and attention span. 
  • Citrus: The smell of oranges and lemons boosts energy and alertness, as well as reduces stress. 
  • Coffee: This aroma, as well as the caffeine, can increase attention span. 
  • Freshly cut grass: This summer scent can make you feel relaxed, reduce stress and boost your memory. Some studies show it can even prevent mental decline as you age. 
  • Jasmine: A whiff of this stimulates you to feel fresh and energized. 
  • Lavender: This flowering plant is known for its calming effects, temporarily sedating the nervous system to help ease insomnia and depression. 
  • Peppermint: This herb can elevate your mood and stimulate your mind and body. Mint scents dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow to the brain, making you feel more alert. 
  • Pine: A simple walk in the forest can lower symptoms of depression and stress levels. 
  • Rosemary: The smell of this herb amplifies brain power, helping you remember complex events and tasks. 
  • Vanilla: This is one of the aromatics naturally occurring in breast milk and used in baby formula, making us associate this smell with feeling nurtured and soothed. 

This fall, as you reach for that pumpkin spice flavoured latte or inhale the familiar scent of a candle, you’ll understand better why they make you feel somehow warm and content. 

So sip away and enjoy. Comfort comes each year in pumpkin spice form.