How Scent and Memory Works

“Have you ever wondered why smell is so strongly linked to memory? Why does a certain perfume always conjure up memories of a favourite aunt, or the smell of a particular flower transport you vividly back to the garden of your childhood home? Or, indeed, why and how essential oils can affect the mind and emotions?”

So begins the entry for The Mind in Patricia Davis’ book ‘Aromatherapy: An A - Z’. At some point in our lives we’ve all been affected by an aroma that brings a specific memory back to our mind, and maybe we’ve wondered, as well, why that is.

Without getting into too much detail and science-y stuff, a simple explanation of how this works is that when we smell an aroma, it travels up the nose and is processed by the olfactory nerves, which are connected to the olfactory bulb. The job of the olfactory bulb is to sort through scent signals from the olfactory nerves and then give information about the aroma to the limbic system in the brain. There are two parts in the limbic system that are directly connected to the olfactory bulb, the amygdala, which is responsible for storing and relaying emotions, and the hippocampus, which stores and relays memories, to other parts of the body.

The way we process scent is different than our other senses of taste, hearing, touch and sight. Those four senses are processed first through the area of the brain called the thalamus and then the information is sent to the amygdala and hippocampus, which may take longer for the signals to arrive. Because of the olfactory bulb and it’s close connection to the amygdala and hippocampus, this process can be quicker, and may be one of the reasons why smells can so easily and quickly help us recall memories and related emotions to mind.

So the next time you smell a rose, a perfume or are transported back in time through a certain scent, take a moment to reflect on how those emotions and memories affect you. Are you happier, calmer, more relaxed? Or are you on edge, agitated or suddenly worried? The way scents can trigger different memories and emotions can be very helpful to us. They can help us enjoy the moment more fully and bring a lightness to our day, or maybe even help us dig deeper into why a certain scent makes us either sad, upset, happy or relaxed and then begin to process those emotions more deeply. However a scent may make you feel, it is important to recognize those moments and let them enrich your life for the better!   

I would love to hear how scents and memories have affected your life. Leave a comment and let me know!

Hannah

P.S. Beer brewing always reminds me of my childhood and I love it! Weird, I know, but I grew up in St. Louis, MO, in Soulard, literally right next door to the biggest beer-making factory in America, Anheuser-Busch. So, while as I’m not a huge fan of the taste of beer, the smell of it brewing makes me feel very happy and content.

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