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Making sense of the baking craze

May 29, 2020

Image: Shutterstock Images

Sick of isolation? Working from home got you down? 

A Bond University expert says the best approach may be to sniff your way to serenity.

Since COVID-19 has forced people all over the world to stay home, social media has been flooded with images of people making their own bread and cakes.

But rather than just seeking a sugar rush and a tasty afternoon snack, Dr Oliver Baumann says the wannabe bakers may in fact be unwittingly taking solace from the world’s troubles through the most unlikely of channels - their sense of smell.

Dr Baumann, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, said while the term “comfort food” was these days associated with items such as pizzas and burgers, the phrase had been around longer than takeaways, and related to the sentimental and nostalgic feelings associated with food.

One of Dr Baumann’s main areas of research is the link between sensations and memories.

“The relationship between sensations like odours and taste, and memories, is quite strong in the sense that they’re powerful in bringing back involuntary memories.

“That explains maybe why people don’t buy the cake, but they like to make them because once the house is filled with the nice smell of the cake, it’s kind of impossible to not feel good about it, because it brings back all those childhood memories of birthdays and family celebrations.

“My hunch is that’s one of the strongest drivers, the fresh smell of cake at home is just one way to get rid of negative feelings and be in a positive mood.”

Dr Baumann said there was a strong link between people’s memory and their sense of smell and taste, even stronger than visual or auditory triggers.

“The part of our brain which is responsible for processing smell is directly connected to the part of our brain that is responsible for memory, it’s not the case for any of the other senses, which means smell has this direct route to the memory system.

“Any kind of odour has a much more profound effect than any of the other stimuli, that’s why baking the cake is so much more effective than buying it. Having that smell in the house is the bigger factor, moreso than even eating it.”

It was for that reason that shopping centres, Apple stores, and even Singapore Airport had their own trademarked scents.

The advent of social media meant trends such as home baking were likely to catch on a lot quicker, Dr Baumann said.

“Social media accelerates that kind of herd behaviour, it triggers it to see what other people do, getting ideas that speed up these processes as well. You see extreme peaks of people doing the same thing, I think it’s very likely through that rapid sharing of information, it speeds up trends which before that had to go by word of mouth.”

Through sharing an activity like baking, people could also increase their sense of community and connectivity while remaining in isolation.

Dr Baumann said taking part in any activity while insolation, whether it was baking, exercise or even painting the house, was a good way to deal with negative feelings and generate a positive sense of achievement. 

“One of the basic human needs or motivators is the need for achievement, and obviously it’s expressed differently for different people.”