How Smells Impact our Emotions and Behaviours – an Interview with Dr. Rachel Herz

Dr. Rachel Herz

Dr. Rachel Herz

Fifth Sense recently sat down with Dr. Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and pyschologist with an interest in smell and taste loss, and how this impacts our behaviours, our food preferences and choice of partner. Her latest book, “Why You Eat What You Eat” has recently been published in the UK, and she has offered a discount on this to Fifth Sense members and supporters (please note that this offer is only open to people in the UK, Ireland or Europe).

To order this title at a special discount of 25% + free delivery please click here and add the code WN494 when prompted at the checkout.

1. What interested you about smells and how they impact our emotions, language and behaviour?

As an undergraduate in biology and biopsychology, I wanted to find a way to bring these two fields together. When I was in graduate school trying to figure how to do it, I read a research paper where smell was used to induce mood, which was really interesting, because at the time these kinds of studies usually asked the participants to read something emotive, rather than using a basic sense, and I realised that the sense of smell was the way that I could bring psychology and biology together.

My interest in anosmia came after I was contacted by a lawyer representing a client who’d lost her sense of smell after an accident – I was brought in to help argue that it was a devastating loss that impacted all areas of her life.

 2. How has your psychology expertise helped or informed your research?

I studied cognitive psychology and neuroscience, so this helped me understand what impacts people’s feelings about food, and how the senses, emotions, our brain and the social environment all have a bearing.

A very important feature of what we get from meals is the social stimulation, and that’s really good, because it creates positive feelings. It’s important to look at how to use your environment to augment the social and emotional aspects of eating, and my background has helped me understand that better.

Dr. Herz's new book

Dr. Herz’s new book

3. You’ve written about the role of the sense of smell in connecting us to other people.  How important do you think smell is in sexual attraction? 

My research on heterosexual attraction has shown that how a man smells is the most important factor for a woman in terms of whether she will be sexually attracted to him or not. Natural body odour is very important , but the colognes and fragranced personal care products that a man uses can also be very attractive to a woman.

In other situations, if a man has a ‘wrong’ smell even if he’s clean from the shower she won’t be attracted to him. And not being able to smell a man can have a negative impact as well. In the legal case that led me to write my first book and first got me involved with anosmia patients, one of the most profound impacts was that the woman discovered that her loss of smell caused a disconnect with her husband and this had a profoundly negative impact on their relationship.

4. Do you think that people who have experienced a loss of the sense of smell can still be influenced by their memories when it comes to food preferences? To what extent? 

Yes, they can. People often have a memory of a food and not being able to taste it is frustrating for them. I encourage them to flip it and use the memory to fill in the gaps of the food they are eating.  Using sights and sounds can help a lot as well. For example, listening to the sound of meat sizzling or various types of music that help to conjure the mood of the food. It won’t be the same, but it will help.

I met a woman who used memory deliberately when eating holiday meals to evoke the flavour of the festive foods. She found that her memories waned as she got older, but this could be attributed to the fact that she only actively recalled these flavour sensations once or twice a year.

For food, you need to use your memories often, not just during holidays, and you’ll retain the memories and the feelings they evoke longer. Rather than being upset that you aren’t experiencing food the way you used to, you can use your memories of food in a positive way to help recreate those sensations. In addition, taking advantage of the social aspects of eating and photos of meals and special occasions can help.

 5. Your new book, “Why You Eat What You Eat” has a strong focus on our sense of taste, and explains the difference between this and flavour.  How useful do you think this could potentially be to someone to has lost their sense of smell? 

One of the people I interviewed for the book was a man who’d been a big fan of steaks, and he was very upset about not to be able to experience them in the same way after he lost his sense of smell. In my book I suggest a number of ways that people who have lost their sense of smell can try to augment their eating experience by using their other senses and their memories.

A caution I also discuss in is how foods with very compelling tastes like sweet, salt and fat can be a danger if they are eaten to excess. These sensations are still very pleasurable even if you can’t smell but overdoing them can lead to poor nutrition and weight gain.

In talking to people who are anosmic I’ve discovered that foods with the most sensory modulation are the more pleasing to eat, like foods with mixed textures and saltiness and sweetness, like salted caramel pretzel ice-cream or a salad with nuts, sultanas and various types of lettuces and vegetables with a creamy dressing.

See website:

Rachel’s books: The Scent of Desire and Why You Eat What You Eat


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