As a person with a scientific gaze on my apparently immeasurably insignificant existence, I like to justify my actions with sciencey sounding things that I’ve glanced at from a click bait ad on any given social media application I happen to find myself on. Armed with my broad and questionable knowledge of how things work I can wake up each day eager to find out 10 more foods I won’t believe will give me a six-pack. And this generalized and streamlined knowledge gathering defines the way I think most of us live our lives today.
This is why I feel no guilt for being banned from “Every PAK’nSAVE in the entire Dunedin area”, as the store manager of the only PAK’nSAVE in the entire Dunedin area phrased it, and that is because I am (moderately) certain that marmite made me do it!
Sitting in the derelict security office of my closest and most affordable grocery provider, deciding how much smile is appropriate for a supermarket mug shot, I pondered why the fuck did I attempt to steal a marmite scroll? Many thoughts flickered behind my eyes including but not limited to: “stick it to the man!!” and “how the hell did I not notice a 6ft 5 man with every single tooth missing from at least the front half of his mouth following me around the supermarket isles as I munched my sodium soaked snack?!” (I put this question down to the crafty supermarket psychology of product placement and choice of music, that had, up until my point of capture, made my visit very pleasant).
But anyway… Fuck you supermarkets! Fuck you toothless guys! But more importantly Fuck you Marmite!!!
On closer inspection into my now not so pleasant visit to PAK’nSAVE, perhaps slightly biased by the fact that I have just decided to write a blog about smelling, I believe that wafting that sticky black goodness into my sticky black goodness receptors transported my mind back to a time in my life where consequences weren’t an imperative thought to every action. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, But Zoe, you sound like a bad ass!! Have you ever worried about such banal things as consequences? I know it’s hard to believe from hearing this story but in fact, picking out a $1.89 marmite scroll, walking around a supermarket plucking its savory core bit by bit until reaching the checkout, and deciding that in fact, I’m not going to pay for what is now just an empty paper bag, was my first foray into an ‘intentional’ life of crime. I say intentional because, you know, we’ve all been young once. AND THAT’S EXACTLY MY POINT!! We have all been young once and when I was young I ATE MARMITE!
So, without going into too much detail, because I’ll define further in later blogs. To understand why smell has such a huge influence on stealing marmite scrolls, it’s important to understand how smell is received by the brain, and how this is different to the way any other sensory stimulus is received and perceived by the brain. Yes, touching the soft doughy scroll lovingly made by teenagers on minimum wage could have made me remember something about how I used to eat a similarly soft and doughy white bread marmite and chip sammy at lunch time in my youth, just like tasting it could have also triggered a memory. But sight, taste, touch, and sound are all ‘basic bitches that shop at Glassons’. They all follow the same path to the thalamus, the part of the brain that sorts them and sends them off to the appropriate processing area. The rebel of the group is smell. Smells bypass the all-sorting-conforming-square that is the thalamus and instead head to the olfactory bulb, the smell analyzing region of the brain which just happens to have set up camp right next to the amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that handle memory and emotion.
This idea that I smelled something that triggered an emotional response that I am recalling from my past is known as associative learning. So, Marmite reminds me of my childhood, and remembering times of my consequence free youth changes my mood, just like smelling bleach might remind you of a trip to the hospital which might not have been a pleasant one. In my case it was a positive mood change, let’s just say, I felt care free. Which brings us one step closer to explaining why marmite made me do it.
The mood we are in at any given time has a huge impact on our actions. People in a positive mood exhibit higher levels of creativity than individuals in a bad mood. When people were exposed to an odour they liked creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odour. So with a changed mood my actions were being influenced without me being aware of it.
Mood is linked to an increase in productivity and performance, relatively obvious right, but it is also linked to our tendency to help others, and the opposite is true of bad moods. An example of all of this linked together is a study that exposed people to the smells of baking cookies or roasting coffee and found that they were more likely to help a stranger than people who were not presented with any smells at all.
And pleasant odours seem to help us a lot. People who worked in the presence of a pleasant smelling air freshener reported higher self-competence, set higher goals and were more likely to employ efficient work strategies than participants who worked in a no-odour condition. Pleasant ambient odours have also been found to enhance vigilance during a tedious task and improve performance on anagram and word completion tests. Conversely, the presence of a bad smell reduced participants’ subjective judgments and lowered their tolerance for frustration, but I don’t think that marmite smells particularly bad (what I take from this is, good or bad, smell can impair judgement).
And although I have found a huge number of studies that have proved the connection of smell and our actions, everything seems pretty black and white, good or bad, and this is because all studies that attempt to decipher different smells across an ethnic lolly-scramble they can unanimously pinpoint a couple of nice smells, and a couple of bad smells, but everything in between is completely subjective. And black and white doesn’t quite cover the more brown molasses tinted shade that I experienced. So, here I state that I smelled marmite, marmite changed my mood, my mood made me feel care free, and that was what made me leave the paper bag in my trolley without paying.
Either that, or the toothless guy needs better air freshener.