The Frontal Cortex

Proustian Hotels

We all know about Proust and his madeleine. One whiff of that buttery cookie, shaped like a seashell, and Proust suddenly remembered his long forgotten childhood in Combray. Proust makes it clear that his sense of smell was the trigger for his memory. He knew that our nose bears a unique burden of memory:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

As I note in my forthcoming book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, we now know that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, has shown–in a science paper wittily entitled “Testing the Proustian Hypothesis”–that our sense of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. All our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before corporations started taking advantage of this odd cortical setup. Fancy hotels are now using scent to define their brand, in the hope that your hippocampus might remember their smell, and associated with nice things:

The Park Hyatt Washington, D.C., recently emerged from a $24 million makeover with more than just sleek guest rooms–it also now has a custom fragrance by Parisian perfumer Blaise Mautin. Hotel staff pumps the warm, woodsy scent into the lobby using atomizers.

Hyatt’s hoteliers aren’t the only ones exploiting guests’ sense of smell. Many luxury properties have embraced signature fragrances; now, scents are being adopted by the chains. At Omni Hotels, hidden machines spray a lemongrass-green-tea scent into the lobby and a coconut fragrance, for a tropical effect, around the pool; this year the hotel group plans to offer scents in its meeting spaces–citrus for energy, supposedly; lavender and sandalwood to reduce stress. Westin Hotels & Resorts, meanwhile, is debuting a signature White Tea aroma in 127 lobbies around the world in an attempt to, among other things, “create an emotional attachment to the building and the brand,” says senior vice president Sue Brush.