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How Scent Affects Your Memory

March 29, 2017


The Scent of the Heart




“Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 



Have you ever had a sudden and surprising longing to talk to your grandmother after you entered a bakery? Or randomly recalled the comfort of your mother as you pulled freshly baked cookies from your oven? Or perhaps unexpectedly missed a long-lost love by simply walking past a perfume counter in a department store? There’s a very good reason for these seemingly odd occurrences. Of all our majestic sensory abilities, the sense of smell is the one we most connect to the part of our brain that stores memories. 


A fascinating article in Psychology Today states, “The reason for these associations is that the brain’s olfactory bulb is connected to both the amygdala (an emotion center) and to the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. And, because smells serve a survival function (odors can keep us from eating spoiled or poisonous foods), some of these associations are made very quickly, and may even involve a one-time association...But even in adulthood, we can easily make associations between smells and memories.”


This real-life superpower has the ability, then, to transport us, no time machine needed. Imagine how many smells one processes throughout the day and the number of various emotional triggers associated with each one. Whether or not we are actually consciously aware of them—that’s a lot of information we are constantly handling! But before you get too overwhelmed, just imagine how many possibilities for unconscious pleasure and happiness are continuously keeping you company. Besides, the human brain is advanced and flexible enough to let other sensory processes take the forefront, but it’s still exciting to ponder the myriad combinations of joy all around us. Don’t have a dinner date for Friday night? No worries, just let your nose be your partner!


To further explore the science behind such connections, an article from The New York Times said, “Whereas new signals detected by our eyes and our ears must first be assimilated by a structural way station called the thalamus before reaching the brain’s interpretive regions, odiferous messages barrel along dedicated pathways straight from the nose and right into the brain’s olfactory cortex, for instant processing.”

Women and men have long been allured by the mysterious sense of smell. Beyond the survival function of smelling danger, or even warning a person that something is poisonous or bad (spoiled milk, anyone?), our olfactory sense can be a part of falling and staying in love. After all, the way someone smells is often an element of initial attraction. If you were to wear a rose-scented perfume on a first date that went exceptionally well, continuing to wear that fragrance on the subsequent dates can further establish that connection. That scent will be most associated with you and the joyful experience of those first electrifying and wonderfully dizzy feelings. Additionally, changing your signature scent can later turn up the heat and mystery of a long-term flame. 


Back in the glory days of handwritten correspondence, women often scented love letters with their perfume, as if to send a part of their spirit along with each proclamation or romantic notion. Even in our more modern world, who is not occasionally left with the lingering essence of loved one’s cologne or perfume on their cheek or clothing after a tender embrace? Or maybe you’ve borrowed your true love’s jacket and found yourself wistfully enamored with the pleasant phantom of their scent. 

Beyond all of this, you can try a brief experiment. Imagine for just a moment that in front of you is a slice of hot apple pie, perhaps with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream melting on top. Can you see the steam coming out of the center as you glide your fork through the dessert? The memory cues stored in one’s mind utilize many senses to imagine it—taste, sight, and yes, absolutely, smell. Did you only smell apples? Or, more likely, did you also smell spices like cinnamon and perhaps nutmeg? Did you smell the rich and buttery crust? Did the smells remind you of anyone in particular? It’s no coincidence that some of the most favored perfume scents in focus groups often have elements associated with food. Vanilla, spices, chocolate, and even notes of citrus are extremely popular. 


In today’s hectic society, aromatherapy has become a popular way to effectively unwind on a daily basis. Even if you aren’t going to a spa or regularly indulging in aromatherapy massages, you likely own scented candles, lavender sachets or lotion, incense, and/or several types of bath salts/soaps. There are specific scents associated with just about any sort of mood you’d like to achieve or enhance: lavender for relaxation, grapefruit for uplifting cheer, ylang-ylang as an aphrodisiac, and rosemary to energize. Those are just a few examples, and perfume oils often combine several scents at once to create even more complex, individualized, and alluring fragrances. Whether you’re a purest and like to wear just one scent at a time or you prefer to mix and combine, perfume is a perfect way to assert your individuality. And more importantly, fragrance leaves an enchantingly invisible mark on someone else’s brain—as it also creates new, exciting memories for you. 



*This article was originally posted for Wild Feather by Mary Lenoir Bond, creator of Le Noir Bleu Aromatherapy


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