If You Love the Way Old Books Smell, Science Says You Probably Also Love These Scents

If you like the smell of old books (and who doesn’t?!), science says you also like the smell of two other amazing things: coffee and chocolate. A new study says the smell of old books reminds you of those things as well.

The study, which was published in Heritage Science, was conducted by two scientists who created an experiment where they could test the effect of “unlabeled and concealed smells” on participants of the study. The experiment was conducted at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where 79 visitors were asked to participate.

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According to the study’s findings, the vast majority of study participants connected the smell of old books to the scents of coffee and chocolate. The scientists were surprised the connection came up so repeatedly—but keep in mind, it was an incredibly small study.

So how does this connection even work? Well, it’s because most materials (including chocolate, coffee and old books) release small amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. These compounds are what we smell with our noses and interpret into the smell “of something” with our brains.

The study authors took the volatile organic compounds of the books, coffee and chocolate and ran them through a series of sensors and other scientific equipment to identify specific smell components.

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“You tend to use familiar associations to describe smells when they are unlabelled,” heritage scientist Cecilia Bembibre told Popular Science in an interview. “And also, the VOCs of chocolate and coffee seem to be very similar to that of books. But it was still surprising to see that reference come up again and again.”

So why is this important? Well, smell is often described as the sense most closely linked to memory, and this can be crucial for preserving smells for future generations.

“Our sense of smell is very close to the memory center in the human brain, and therefore we very often associate memories with certain smells very powerfully and very strongly,” chemist Matija Strlič told Popular Science. “Very often smell triggers old memories that we otherwise couldn’t trigger. It is one of the reasons smell plays such an important role in how we experience heritage.”

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About the Author
Jessica Suss
Current high-school English teacher, native Chicagoan, and nut butter enthusiast moonlighting as a writer.

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