In my previous post, I talked about what is pumpkin spice and if it contains pumpkin. If you haven’t checked that one out, head over there now. Here’s the link to the post:
It is the pumpkin spice season right now and we are all craving some of that warm, comforting aroma, aren’t we? I sure am. Each time I go to Starbucks, I get myself a mug of that warm Pumpkin Spice Latte. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, like I just want to cuddle up in a warm blanket with this, sip this warm mug of deliciousness while watching the autumn outside – falling leaves, gentle breeze, weather get a slight chill, and that beautiful palette nature dons during this season.
What our brain does when it encounters a familiar comforting fragrance like pumpkin spice?
While pumpkin spice, undoubtedly, has grown and benefited greatly from clever marketing tactics, coming to signify the arrival of the fall season the world over but it has also been found that the pumpkin spice aroma does trigger emotions and memories that go way beyond just being a plain hunger pang or wanting something trending. According to Jason Fischer and Sarah Cormiea of the Dynamic Perception Lab at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This close connection explains why the smells such as musty books can take you back to those long study sessions at the college library or those campfires you had when you went for the trekking camp you went to in the Himalayas.
The strong association formed by an aroma is usually a result of not just the current aroma of the food as well as past experiences with that particular food – could be its aroma or taste or both. So, the popularity and the love for pumpkin spice comes not just from the heady aroma of the pumpkin spice – that familiar comforting blend of those warm spices – cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, but also from our past experiences encountering the spice – the smell, the taste, and the whole awareness of having the spice around. The brain is quiet adept at filling in the gaps between the aroma of the pumpkin spice and our memories of encountering a similar aroma in our past. The brain never stops – it is always working, always processing things around us – awake or asleep, working constantly to build our individual reality and rationality. It is always taking inputs from all our senses – what we see, what we smell, what we touch, what we taste, and what we hear. The sensory input the brain receives from all our senses are combined with what we already know and believe. As a matter of fact, our experience of the world is a construction – our mind is constantly filling in lots of details – says Fischer, assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences.
What is this magic about the pumpkin spice aroma?
We’ve established that the aroma of the pumpkin spice is not the aroma of pumpkin. Pumpkin belongs to the squash family and there is no way any member of that family smells like those heady baking spices on their own. Interestingly, pumpkin spice is not even a spice blend limited to usage in pumpkin pies or fall-special lattes. There are countless autumnal foods and beverages that use this unique blend or close variations of it, for example, apple crisps and mulled ciders or mulled wines. So powerful is the association most individuals have with the pumpkin spice that just reading the words would activate parts of the brain that process aromas and the individual would be able to almost smell that delicious aroma in their heads. The brain is super-skilled at forming connections between words and scent memory. For instance, you could almost smell the perfume your ex used to wear even if you just read his or her name somewhere, sometimes. Or you read the name of a perfume brand and you can almost smell the fragrance in your head. Or someone says red chili and curry leaf tempering and you almost feel yourself sneezing from the aromas that your nose catches. Or you remember the smell of camphor from a newly cleaned and arranged cupboard even as you read it here.
Research has shown that our brains file similar scents into same categories. So, even when you would not be specifically smelling the pumpkin spice blend, but rather be smelling something not even related to the pumpkin spice blend, say you smell some apple cider donuts at the shop, the emotional reactions your bran produces could be very similar to the reactions produced by smelling the pumpkin spice blend. So far as there is enough overlap between the two aromas, our brain will do the job of forming connections and bridges.
In the lab setting, Fischer and Cormiea have been able to adjust the perception of various smells and tastes based on the names attached to those scents. Weirdly, people are very bad at identifying smells verbally. Unlike the close connection that is there between the sense of smell and the memory center, the parts of the brain that process odor information are not very well-connected to the parts that process languages. This is precisely what marketers tend to use manipulating our senses to believe that pumpkin spice is actually a distinct aroma with distinct memory triggers. Make it seasonal and there’s your recipe of success. Its limited nature makes the memories even more powerful.
This is why pumpkin spice aromas make us feel all warm and cozy and fuzzy because those are the memory associations that get triggered in our brains every time we smell the pumpkin spice blend or something similar like a mulled wine or cider donuts.
What do you think of the pumpkin spice? Tell me in the comments below or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie. While pumpkin spice in India is still not as established a concept as in the United States, it is catching up fast. Plus, globe-trotting Indians are also fast catching onto international trends and bringing them back home.