Pumpkin Spice and Writing

Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so popular? The fascinating part is not only does it taste amazing, but many are obsessed with how it makes them feel on an emotional level.

Dr. John McGann, a sensory neuroscientist at Rutgers Department of Psychology, explains how it all reverts back to the olfactory system — our sense of smell — which is complex to say the least.

“Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell,” McGann says. “About 70 percent of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25 percent of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there also additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

The human brain also assembles memories and emotions. In this way, smell is unique from all other senses, which first passes through the thalamus — a relay station of the brain — and goes straight to the olfactory bulb.

“From there it goes to the amygdala, which controls emotion, and to the hippocampal formation, the entorhinal cortex,” McGann explains. “Smell anatomically has a more direct connection to classical memory regions in the brain.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? A scene becomes more impactful and memorable when we include smell.

  • If your character is in the forest, include the fresh scent of pine.
  • If your character is in the bowling alley, include the stench of bare feet.
  • If your character is in a boat, include the salty ocean air.
  • If your character is at an Italian restaurant, include the signature tomato sauce.
  • If your character is at the gym, include body odor or sweat.
  • If your character is in a sauna, include cedar.
  • If your character is at a pool, include chlorine.
  • If your character is home, include a scented candle, tart warmer, or air freshener.
  • If one character is cradling a toddler, include baby shampoo or talcum powder.

McGann recalls a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past”, where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and feels as if he’s transported back in time. The same thing happens to us when we drink or eat something flavored with pumpkin spice.

What makes the flavor so widely relatable is the inclusion of spices like cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg that are more prevalent during the holidays. The aroma of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — historically, a prosperous time of year.

Food chemists hit an olfactory jackpot. Hence why pumpkin spice became more than just a fad. It’s a seasonal staple.

“The pumpkin spice blend… It’s about making people happy and connecting them to moments: the changing of the season, of being warm under the covers, but also the memory of spending enjoyable time with family and friends.” Thierry Muret, executive chef chocolatier at Godiva

Think about how the aroma of hot buttery popcorn triggers memories of movie theaters or how lobster tails remind New Englanders of the beach.

Where does your main character live? Does the area have a signature dish? Tickle the reader’s sense of smell to transport them there.

“Pumpkin spice is a novelty smell because you don’t smell it very often and it’s usually a pleasant smell,” explains Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. “Combine that with the fact that the part of the brain that processes smell is closely tied to the part of your brain responsible for memories and you have part of the secret to the success of pumpkin spice.”

Makes sense, right?

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell,” Harris adds. “It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment.”

This helps to explain why scent is such a powerful driver of emotion.

The irony is that pumpkin spice doesn’t smell like pumpkins. Pumpkins are members of the squash family, and don’t smell like spices. On their own their taste ranges from bland to bitter. What we’re actually smelling and/or tasting is a combination of cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

The true genius of the pumpkin spice craze is all about timing. Same holds true for writing. Don’t include a scent merely to check off an item on the to-do list. Include smell for a reason.

Examples:

  • To enhance the setting—the MC is hiking up a mountain trail.
  • To transport the reader back in time and/or place—flashing back to a memory.
  • To pack a more emotional punch—a mother loses her son, but she can still smell him on his favorite football jersey or bed pillow.
  • To set the scene—the MC meets a blind date at a restaurant.

“Pumpkin spice plays on what’s known in psychology as reactance theory, which refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it,” according to Harris. “The seasonality of it is really intentional. If pumpkin spice were available year-round, it wouldn’t trigger such powerful memories and people wouldn’t want it as much.”

Also, when the pumpkin spice craze starts, people don’t want to miss out. They crave being part of a community.

“If you add it all up, the powerful ability of smell to summon up old experiences becomes a mental transportation device, shifting you from summer to fall and it becomes an event people want to be part of.”

Let’s pretend you are the main character. What scents should I expect to smell while reading your life story?

Happy Halloween!

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Sue teaches a virtual course about serial killers for EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for her fellow Sisters In Crime. She's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on DiscoveryID (due to air in 2023). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

31 thoughts on “Pumpkin Spice and Writing

  1. Sue, your posts about brain research are always fascinating and educational.

    When I had Covid nine months ago, I lost my sense of smell. I tried a homeopathic remedy, pulsatilla, that seemed to help for a while but has tapered off. Smell comes and goes, ranging in intensity. The next step is a retraining kit four scents–rose, eucalyptus, clove, and citrus–that are sniffed twice a day. That’s supposed to activate neural passageways.

    When writing, previously that sensory detail came naturally but now I have to consciously remember to insert it. Strange but not fatal.

    Thanks for another interesting post and Happy Halloween.

    • Aw, I’m so sorry to hear that, Debbie. Losing your sense of smell is tough, especially as it’s related to taste. It’s interesting the scents they chose for your recovery. I wonder if each triggers a different part of the olfactory center or if it’s because they’re all strong scents.

      Perhaps our resident doctor will know. Steve?

  2. Unfinished leather is my favorite thing to smell–just something so down to earth about it. That and apple/cinnamon. I usually try to incorporate sense of smell in my writing–sometimes it occurs naturally as I write, or sometimes it’s something I add during revision.

    • Same here, Brenda. It’s great when it happens naturally. When it doesn’t, I add during revisions.

      Love the smell of leather! I also love patchouli. There’s something about that smell that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

  3. Good morning, Sue. I second Debbie’s motion that your brain research posts are always very interesting.

    I don’t have good answers to Debbie’s question. The receptors for the olfactory nerve are located high in the nasal cavity, near the opening for the frontal sinus. A lot of people have a loss of smell with frontal sinusitis. And recovery can take months. I’ve seen several where it took a year. And one or two who never recovered their sense of smell. Although I have no evidence that it works, I always recommend high doses of B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12, which are important in nerve healing, to speed the recovery of the neural pathways.

    As to your question, as a MC, I live in a woods and love the pungent smell of rotting leaves and vegetation when I am cutting firewood. I enjoy woodworking, and like the smell of fresh-sawn pine, walnut, and white oak. Red oak stinks, although it is very popular.

    In my backstory, I can still remember the smell of chickenpox, when it went through my whole family some sixty years ago. And when I worked for a mason in my first job, and was foolish enough to take a whiff of muratic acid (concentrated hydrochloric acid used to clean mortar off bricks), I lost my sense of smell and taste that never fully recovered, an excuse I use for my love of all foods and a reason I eat too much. At least, that’s my excuse.

    Thanks for the great post. Have a Happy Halloween!

    • Fascinating, Steve. Thank you!

      The scents you mentioned would entice me to read your life story. 🙂

      I absolutely love the smell of wood. Birch is my favorite wood-burning smell. My father-in-law puts one skinny branch of applewood in his wood stove, and the entire house smells of warm apples. Delightful and homey. Every year I’m so tempted to cut a branch off our apple tree for the fire, but I’m afraid I won’t stop cutting. LOL

      Happy Halloween!

    • Very evocative smells, Steve! I battled sinusitis in the early 1990s–my sense of smell has been “muted” ever since, but luckily still there, just not as acute.

  4. Happy Halloween, Sue! Fascinating post with terrific examples and tips on using smell. I had severe sinusitis thirty years ago and my sense of smell has never fully recovered, but fortunately I still have it and treasure what I can sense.

    I love the rich smell of dark chocolate, the scent of teas–black, green, oolong, herbal. The smell of the air before dawn when I’m outside stargazing.

    A childhood memory–my family staying at Sun Lake in central Washington State when I was five or so and stepping out of our little cabin in the early morning, the small of the green grass and the misty air from the sprinklers. Walking toward the Columbia River with the great palisades beyond and the crisp desert air.

    • Sounds delightful, Dale. There’s nothing quite like the smell of grass, especially when it’s freshly cut. And I know the exact smell of the air before dawn! Love it.

      Sorry to hear about your sinusitis. That’s rough.

      Happy Halloween!

  5. I had a bad cold thirty years ago and when I recovered, my sense of smell did not. My family would be eeewwwing about the smell of a skunk or hog confinements as we traveled, but for me, nothing. In the bank where I worked at the time, I was elected to wait on the hog farmers because of this. My eyes still watered and I could feel it in the back of my throat, but not even a whiff of scent.

    This makes it a checklist item when I’m writing, because I don’t think about it. I’ll ask others what they smell, and I remember scents, but that sense is gone. When we were in Amsterdam, apparently the air was thick with the scent of marijuana, but I have no idea what it smells like because it wasn’t something I’d smelled before. So if I’m the MC, there isn’t going to be a lot of scent in my life.

  6. A whiff of cigar smoke always brings back memories of my father, and I see and hear him again, reciting poetry or a section of a great speech.

    Give me the smell of fresh ground coffee, both before and during brewing.

  7. Pine trees and lilacs. After spending nearly 40 years in my home town where these are common, I moved away to an area that didn’t have much of either of these. When I happened to drive to another state, I encountered both of these and was instantly homesick.

    I saw a news article recently lamenting the markup retailers place on anything pumpkin spice flavored or scented, even though the product is otherwise identical to other flavored products, like in the range of 30-160%. I guess that’s the going price for happy holiday memories.

    • I live among pine trees and lilacs, KS. Love those smells, as well. It’s amazing how a scent can make us homesick. So powerful.

      Yeah, retailers have gone overboard with the pumpkin spice craze, putting a price on our happiness. Shameful, really.

    • Oh I forgot about lilacs! Had those trees growing up in Maryland but not here in the southwest.

  8. Good morning, Sue, and thank you for your fascinating posts on brain research.

    We always have pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the smell and taste of it brings back warm memories.

    There are a couple of scents that elicit vivid memories for me:
    – I was born and raised in Savannah, GA, and the salty smell of the ocean transports me back to my childhood.
    – The smell of horses and leather takes me back to my young adulthood when I owned a horse and spent all my free time at the stables. (Believe it or not, people who have owned horses find the smell of a horse barn agreeable.)

    • Mornin’, Kay. 🙂

      I love the smell of a horse barn, even though a white horse bit me in kindergarten, emotionally scarring me forever. LOL Now, I admire dark horses — never white — from afar.

  9. Pumpkin spice smells like disappointment to me, recently. I’ve bought cereal and bread that were “pumpkin spice” this month, and I needed my imagination to taste the spices.

    The same smell can be positive or negative depending on the person. I like the smell of horse manure because it brings back memories of my horse. Or the situation. Dog poop odor is just dog poop odor unless it’s in your bedroom courtesy of an annoying dog.

    • Yes, the smell of manure never bothered me. I grew up in the country and it was just part of life. When I moved to Arizona (back when there was still open land in the metro area) people would whine about the smell from cow pastures. That always makes me think of the episode of MASH where Radar gave Col. Potter the horse, and the horse pooped in his office, and Potter nearly slipped.

      Frank Burns was aghast. “That’s disgusting!”

      But Potter just smiled and said “Son, to me, that’s a tiptoe through the tulips.” I’ll never forget that line as long as I live. The reason Potter was my favorite MASH character.

  10. Fascinating post, Sue! Thank you . . .

    I’m one of those weird geeks who detests the smell of pumpkin spice-and absolutely anything flavored with it. I avoid pumpkin spice lattes like the proverbial plague.

    What would my life story smell like? When I was a kid, it’d smell like my two brothers’ dirty socks. I have lots of stories . . . 🙂

    In the current time frame, it’d smell like the fresh air we get blowing off the mountains to the west of us. I can’t use any scents in our home (or on my person) because of my husband’s asthma, but I can’t think of anything better than PNW mountain air anyway. We have a lavender bush and about ten to twelve pine trees in our yard, and the mixture is intoxicating.

    And fresh coffee brewing. There is that.

  11. Good post, Sue. And thanks for explaining the mystery of pumpkin spice’s popularity. I saw pumpkin spice pretzels at the supermarket last week.

  12. Not a fan of cloves or cinnamon, so the pumpkin spice craze is lost on me. As I mentioned in my post about the sense of smell, it’s strongly linked to memories. I included this link in that post. When I was at my mom’s taking care of clearing out the house, she had a bottle of Shalimar with a tiny bit left in the bottle. I sprayed it on and was immediately rejoined with her.

  13. Late night as usual. When the wind blows from the northwest I can smell the feedlot over in Grimes and when it comes from the east-southeast I can smell the rendering plant down on Maury Street. The feedlot’s a little more tolerable.
    The last three days I’ve been doing yard work, running the mower over the leaves to bag them. There are a lot of walnuts on the ground this year, and when the mower shreds their husks they have a very unique smell. Hard to describe so I’ll try and refine it tomorrow. It’ll be a challenge to turn it into words.

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