“The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind.”
– Thalassa Cruso
You’ve been there before, but it still catches you off guard.
You’re walking down the street and a stranger quickly passes. They brush by you, and you catch a hint of their perfume; it’s a scent you forgot you knew. Suddenly, you’re transported. Your unique memories associated with that smell immediately take you another time, and place in your life. And most of all, you remember how it felt.
“The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind.” – Thalassa Cruso
Your memories are completely tied up in scents. More than any other of the body’s senses, smell and memory are linked. But why? And why are these memories usually associated with childhood?
THE SCIENCE OF SMELL
As a scent enters the nose, its first processed by the olfactory bulb. This starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain. Within this emotional center, lives the amygdala, which plays a role in emotional memories and the hippocampus, which is critical to developing memories.
Due to scent passing through this area of the brain, emotions, memory, and scent become intertwined.
Visual, auditory, and touch information do not pass through these brain areas. This is why smell, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.
SCENT AND NOSTALGIA
But why are these scent memories usually from our childhood?
“Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
In one study, older adults were given three different cue types (word, picture, or odor) and were asked to share any personal memory for that cue. The results showed that most smell memories were from participant’s first 10 years of life, and visual and verbal memories peaked in early adulthood.
The conclusion? Even though scent interacts with the emotion and memory centers in the brain, it doesn’t connect with other, more developed regions.
Words and images go into the thinking/analytical parts of the brain, and scent lives in the emotional parts. As your brain is developing, these emotional memories are formed long before more analytical memories.
YOUR POWERFUL SCENT MEMORIES
Now that you understand how and why the brain processes scent, appreciate how powerful that reaction is. Scent is instrumental to feelings of nostalgia, safety, and comfort.
The next time you encounter a scent that takes you back to a different point in your life; pause, and appreciate the unique relationship between your sense of smell and the memories it evokes.