Why smell triggers memories?

Ever experienced walking down the street and a familiar scent—weather it’s freshly baked bread, or a perfume a loved one used to wear—quickly brings back memories of your childhood or another period in your life?

Memory and concentration

Sonia Chartier

15 November 2016

The sense of smell can evoke a very strong emotional response and unearth very vivid past memories. These memories can be very pleasant, while others not so much. But why exactly does smell trigger these memories better than other senses?

What is smell memory?  

Smell or olfactory memory is really just another memory, but in this case, it’s related to a scent. Unlike other senses, however, the process by which a smell memory is formed and store varies. Anatomy plays a huge role in olfaction (smell). The area of the nose that picks up scents is closely and intimately connected to the brain; specifically a part of the brain that is involved in emotion, emotional processing, anxiety and behaviour regulation (recall the amygdalae).

Visual, auditory and tactile (touch) senses, do not pass through this part of the brain, and therefore, they don’t elicit such a strong response. Has anybody ever said, “oh, the way you touch my ankle reminds me of ice cream”? I don’t think so.

Why we have this ability? 

As stated above, this has everything to do with anatomy and the way the nose and the brain are so intimately connected. Even though human’s sense of smell is not as powerful as that of other animals, it is still the most sensitive of all the senses. People can remember smells with 65% accuracy – compared to 50% visual recall! A strong sense of smell probably served a strong evolutionary purpose ensuring our survival. Yes, there are people who cannot smell. This is a condition known as “anosmia”.

Cool facts about smell and memory: 

  • An odour or fragrance is caused by one or more volatilized chemical compounds, generally at a very low concentration.
  • Your sense of smell gets bored: if you smell something for too long you get used to it and it’s not as strong.
  • Your scent cells are renewed every 28 days – it’s like getting a new nose every month!
  • A female’s sense of smell is stronger than a man’s.
  • You smell things better in spring and summer; this is due to the humidity/moisture in the air.
  • Humans and animals have a favourite smell (variable across people and species).
  • You can process over 100,000 smells!
  • You cannot smell in your sleep.
  • Sense of smell accounts for up to 95% of the flavour in food! This is why when you’re sick you can’t “taste” anything.
  • Bodily scent is strongly linked with sexual attraction.

How aromatherapy can help people?

While most scent memory recalls tend to be positive, some are not. Smells can also evoke symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, knowing what smells have a positive response you can modulate the emotional response.

Aromatherapy can help in some circumstances. It is a very old tradition used in some cultures and it’s not without merit. Just as some animals have favourite scents.  We know how cats react to catnip… and did you know lions love mint and camels tobacco?…there are scents that naturally helps feel more at ease.

Give aromatherapy a try and see how you feel. Worst case scenario is that you associate a new scent with a very relaxing spa experience!…And that doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Home ambiance
Add a few drops on a candle, to a diffuser, on the vacuum cleaner filter, on a light bulb or on a porous ceramic piece.

Floral Bouquet:
3 drops of Orange essential oil
3 drops of Geranium essential oil
3 drops of Ylang Ylang essential oil
Diffuse for 10 minutes every hour.

Sweet Calm:
3 drops of Lemon essential oil
3 drops of Rosemary essential oil
3 drops of Lavender essential oil
Diffuse for 10 minutes every hour.

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