The Nose Knows — How the Sense of Smell Reminds Us of Joyful Memories
Have you ever captured a particular scent in the air that whisked you off to another place and time? While we encounter many odors in our daily lives, we generally don’t give them much thought. Certain smells, however, have the ability to trigger much stronger reactions.
The smells of summer — like suntan lotion, funnel cakes, chlorine and even ocean water — can immediately take us back to very specific moments in our lives. Smells can transport us to different places as well; burning leaves, early-morning frost, horse stables and flower gardens can all land us squarely in the place where we first inhaled those particular scents.
How do certain smells transport us to another time and place? It’s in the way we are wired.
You may have had similar memory experiences and wondered what, exactly, was responsible for them. As we explore how particular smells are able to take us back in time, you’ll find that the answer isn’t all that complicated.
The Aroma-Memory Connection
The phenomenon of aromas producing instant emotional memories of things in our past is explained, at least in part, by the unique design of our olfactory system, aka our sense of smell. When we come across a scent of any kind, we process it with the olfactory bulb inside our nose. This gland continues from the nose and travels along the bottom of the brain, where it meets the hippocampus and the amygdala. This is where short-term memories are turned into long-term memories.
Strong Connections to Early-Life Experiences
While the scent of suntan lotion or ocean water can quickly bring many people back to carefree summers at the beach, someone who grew up in the desert won’t share those same memories. If they were to inhale them as adults, they may be pleasant, but there will be little or no connection to carefree childhood days on the coast.
Conversely, if you associate the scent of a cologne with someone you see every day, you won’t have much of a reaction. However, if you don’t see them for months and you catch a whiff at a department store, you may experience intense, vivid memories of them. You can even be transported to a particular time and place. This is why when our nose produces a strong, taken-back-in-time experience, it’s most often from a unique smell that is no longer a part of our daily life.
You may be wondering why memories that come through something we see, hear or touch aren’t as vivid or captivating as the ones caused by our sense of smell. That’s simply because those senses do not pass through the area of the brain where the hippocampus and amygdala are located. It’s all in the way we’re wired.
Research has found there is a powerful aroma-memory link to experiences we had before the age of 5.
A Fun Test for Your Olfactory System
You can do an experiment to find out just what kinds of memories are attached to the aromas around you. For a day, be aware of all the smells in your world and let your mind take you back. Here are some common, distinct scents with the power to transport:
- Fresh-cut grass
- Brewing coffee
- Baking bread
- Pine trees
If you start paying attention to scents, you may be surprised by the memories you uncover. Do this long enough, and you just might encounter some of those rare, nostalgic aromas that put you right back into a wonderful time in your life.