Do you look forward to pumping gas? Do you enjoy the pungent odor of fuel as it wafts up from gas stations and seeps into your hands? Does the cocktail of hydrocarbons, antifreeze, and hundreds of other chemical compounds make you volunteer to jump out of a car in the dead of winter for a chance to pump-and-sniff?
Inhaling gas fumes is, of course, not recommended by anyone. But some people do seem to enjoy taking a whiff when the opportunity presents itself. And according to science, it may be less about getting a cheap buzz and more about nostalgia.
In a piece for Discover, Carl Engelking points out that gasoline gets its distinctive smell from benzene, a compound that increases octane levels and improves fuel efficiency. Benzene is easy to detect with our nose even when present in small amounts. And there’s precedent for finding the odor pleasant: In the 1800s, Engelking writes, benzene was an ingredient in aftershaves and feminine hygiene products.
But that’s a bit too far in the rearview to have modern relevance. The benzene aficionados of today are probably catching a sniff because scent and memory are closely related. Some call it the Proust phenomenon, named after author Marcel Proust, who once described the smell and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea as evoking childhood memories. The olfactory bulb, or the nerves that detect scent molecules, are closely tied in with the brain’s amygdala (which processes emotional response) and hippocampus (which handles memory formation). Put simply, scents make us react on an emotional level.
That’s likely why gasoline triggers a pleasant response. Thanks to driving around with parents, being taught to mow a lawn, or anything involving a motorized childhood memory, we associate the smell with a simpler time.
And unlike other smells—baking cookies, for example—benzene actually has a suppressing effect on the nervous system. So one is, in a mild way, getting a bit of a high from it. In filling up at the pump, you’re not only reminding yourself of your childhood. You’re also getting a slight buzz.
A quick nostalgia hit in the course of fueling a vehicle is not likely to create any health issues, but you should be aware that regularly indulging in solvent inhalation can lead to unpleasantness like balance problems, dementia, and tubular necrosis. So try not to regress into your childhood too much.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2023.