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Evoke: The Science of Scent, Emotion and Classical Conditioning


Evoke: The Science of Scent, Emotion and Classical Conditioning

Obviously, here at Plant Therapy, we love scents. We’re lucky enough to live with so many amazing essential oil scents every day! Scent packs a powerful punch because of a psychological phenomenon called classical conditioning.

So what’s classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a kind of learning that had a major influence on psychology and how we understand the brain. It was originally discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, maybe you’ve heard of the phrase ‘Pavlov’s dogs?’ Classical conditioning works by pairing an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

Classical conditioning pairs a neutral signal before a naturally occurring reflex. In Pavlov’s well-known experiment with his dogs, the neutral signal was the sound of a tone and the reflex was drooling in response to food. By pairing the neutral stimulus with the environmental stimulus (presenting the dog’s food), the sound of the tone alone made the dogs drool, even without there being any food around.

Ok, that sounds very confusing. Here it is a little simpler: Classical conditioning works by pairing one thing with another until those two things become linked forever in your mind.

Examples of classical conditioning

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and EmotionKnow how you can’t even stand the smell of your ex-boyfriend’s Axe body spray? That’s classical conditioning.

Do you have a specific food that makes you instantly sick when you smell it? Maybe because you ate or drank too much of it as a young child, or because that one Chinese place in college gave you food poisoning. That feeling of nausea is your classically conditioned response to that food’s scent.

The smell of your mother’s perfume bringing a rush of the feelings of comfort and love is another great example.

The three stages of scent and classical conditioning

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and EmotionStage 1: Pre-conditioning:

In this phase, no new pairs have been made between a response and anything else. Instead, you have a naturally-occurring stimulus (like your mother) and a naturally occurring response (how warm and comfortable you feel around her).

  • Natural stimuli: Something that already exists and gives you good feelings
  • Natural response: The good feelings you feel towards the natural stimuli.

We’re going to focus on pairing this natural response with new stimuli. In this case, the scent of your mom’s perfume.

Stage 2: During Conditioning:

During this second part of the classical conditioning process, a new stimulus that hasn’t been paired with anything yet (like your mom’s perfume) is paired with the already existing responses, like the feeling of warmth and care you feel around her.

This stage works best when you can pair your new stimulus with the old one more than once. A great example of this is that every time you hug your mom, you smell her perfume and feel loved.

Stage 3: After Conditioning:

Now the new pair has been formed in your brain, your mother’s perfume now makes you feel warm and comforted, even when all you’re smelling is the scent itself.

The role of scent and classical conditioning

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and EmotionThe perception of scent is the brains most powerful tool for pairing stimuli and responses with memory.

It works like this: Remember your ex-boyfriend’s Axe body spray? When you smell it now you remember him (and how obnoxious he was) don’t you?

Well, the scent of his body spray became paired in your memory with that person. And this happens for all of us! That’s why your mom’s perfume on a scarf can give you those same great feeling of comfort and love.

In other words, certain fragrances give you good feelings because they remind you of good times or people you love, like your mom’s perfume. And certain smells (like Axe body spray) are paired with negative memories.

Plus, science has found that the scents most likely to evoke happy feelings are one that puts you and your family in a good mood (3).

Using Evoke to create emotions with scent

Evoke: Scent and Classical Conditioning, How to Pair Scent and Emotion

So how can you make Evoke work in your home, to create intentional deep connections?

We know that you can repeatedly pair a chosen scent with good feelings or memories already occurring in your home to create these powerful paired connections in your brain.

Use Excite as a chic handmade perfume to make your boyfriend miss you when you’re on a work trip.

Diffuse Jubilation during the holiday season every year on Christmas Eve to pair those feelings of hope and anticipation for Christmas morning with the distinctive scent.

Use Verve when you’re entertaining your friends for game or movie night, and soon everyone will say ‘what’s that smell? It smells amazing, just like ’s house!” Your home will become cemented in your loved one’s minds with the unique scent of your choosing.


  1. Nalls, G. (2010). Dating, Mating, and Olfaction: Little known side effects of hormone-based birth control. Psychology Today.
  2. Furlow, F. (1996). The Smell of Love. Psychology Today.
  3. Lafta, A. (2015). How Our Sense Of Smell Makes Us Fall In Love And Stay In Love. Elite Daily.