Johns Hopkins researchers explain psychology


BALTIMORE – Here is an experience to try. Order a pumpkin and spice flavored drink at your local cafe. Without telling them what it is, have a friend try it out while holding their nose. Do they know what it is? And when can they smell it?

If your research topic looks like mine, they won’t know what they’re drinking until you say the magic words: pumpkin spice.

That’s understandable, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who explain the allure behind the aroma that dominates fall.

It’s not the taste of the pumpkin spice that we love as much as the smell and its associations, said Sarah Cormiea, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student who studies human olfactory perception, and Jason Fischer, professor of psychology and psychology. brain science.

Of all the senses, smell is only related to memory.

“There is a special kind of access to the memory system in the brain that smell perception has,” Fischer said. The part of the brain that processes smells sits “right against the memories in the brain,” he said.

In fact, just reading the phrase “pumpkin spice” can bring up scents and memories of fall. The phrase can be especially appealing when reinforced by things like leaves changing color and children returning to school.

There’s a whole world of pumpkin and spice flavored items in stores, from cheerios to hummus. McCormick & Company of Hunt Valley first launched its pumpkin pie spice blend in 1934. Two years ago, it was the company’s fourth best-selling spice in the world. ‘fall.

But coffee giant Starbucks claims credit for the phenomenon, which dates back to its 2003 launch of the pumpkin and spice latte. The drink is garnished with pumpkin spice, a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger.

“For nearly two decades, the return of the pumpkin to Starbucks marked the start of the fall season and inspired a cultural phenomenon around fall flavors and produce,” a press release read on their website. This year, Starbucks stores began selling pumpkin spice lattes and other fall drinks and snacks on August 24.

“There’s a reason they don’t have (the pumpkin spice latte) available year round, right?” Said Cormiea. “It’s because people are excited and buy it.”

Despite the connection between smells and memories, Cormiea said people generally have a hard time naming smells – like trying to name an acquaintance whose face they recognize at a party. It changes once they hear what something is.

In testing with research subjects, she found that the introduction of odor labels “changes the way people experience them.” Something like falls into place once you get the tag.

When it comes to pumpkin spices and other nice things, there’s another factor at play called the “familiarity effect,” Fischer said.

“The more you’ve been exposed to something, the more it becomes rooted in your preferences,” he said. “So just by experimenting with pumpkin spice every year, over and over again… it takes on that feeling of familiarity.” Add to that all the other positive associations with the fall, it “can really lead us to find some kind of nostalgic solace in it.”

Trust that advertisers know all about the familiarity effect, which is at work behind other nostalgia-based food trends, like the craze for “birthday cake”-themed items.

“It’s not just because birthday cake is such a tasty thing, it’s because by co-opting you can use all of those positive associations,” Fischer said. “You can take advantage of it. “

Cormiea added: “Otherwise, they would just call it vanilla.”

In 2017, a school in Fells Point was evacuated after students detected an unusual smell they couldn’t quite locate. It turned out to be a pumpkin and spice scented air freshener. If someone had told the students it was pumpkin spice, maybe things would have been different.

People take their sense of smell for granted, says Cormiea. But it plays a major, albeit underestimated, role in everyday life.

Those who lose their sense of smell, including those suffering from the long-term effects of COVID-19, may not be able to detect gas leaks, fires and spoilage of food. Additionally, loss of smell can be associated with feelings of emotional disconnection and memory problems.

“I’ve seen tons of studies where people are asked, ‘If you were to lose one of your senses, which one would you choose?’ She said. “People always say they would give up their sense of smell. And I would like to suggest that this is not the right decision.

Back to this experience: after the first sip, while holding his nose, my research subject said he was drinking hot chocolate. After the second sip, where he was allowed to smell the drink at the same time, he pronounced it “raw hot chocolate”. He didn’t know it was a pumpkin and spice latte.

As fall didn’t start until Wednesday, there is still time to get into the pumpkin spice program.


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