Smell You Later

Ellie Burgess

Why Smells and Memory are Important

Smell related to Memory. It is a very common topic. At some point in their lives, almost all people experience a smell, which their brain automatically relates back to a specific event in the past. Good, or sometimes bad. But why does the brain do that? Researchers have studied this for years and what they found is truly amazing, which is why I am interested in learning more about this topic.


So....What Exactly is Memory Triggered by Smells?

Almost all people, at some point or another, find themselves stopped in their tracks by a simple, ordinary smell. Laundry detergent, cookies, a fall morning, Christmas trees, odortypes (which will be discussed later), or even chlorine from a swimming pool. But what do all of these have in common? Well, based upon each person's individual experiences, memories, and emotions linked to those memories, smells can have a huge impact on people, from time to time. For example, an old woman who vaguely remembers her childhood, could smell a specific type of wood and instantly be reminded of her childhood room with a solid oak bed frame and toys scattered everywhere. Certain smells, depending on the depth of emotion linked to it, can momentarily transport people back to a moment in the past. These can be good or even bad memories. Almost like time travel or a flashback. The most interesting part is that someone could have completely "forgotten" or dismissed a memory from their mind until they smell something specific, and then they are immediately (and momentarily) taken back to a specific moment. The subconscious holds onto those memories, even when we would like to forget.


Why Smells Trigger Memories

While many people would like to explain this incredible fact as our "heart remembering something important to us", it can actually be scientifically explained. The brain is amazing. It takes experiences and turns them into memories. From there, it determines which are important to remember and which may be put away for later use. All of these, after being sorted, end up in the olfactory. The olfactory is a section of brain, toward the front, is connected to the two emotionally responsive sections of the brain, the hippocampus and the amygdala. Interestingly enough, the olfactory is eventually connected to the nasal cavities. These pieces fit together and allow people to associate smells with memory. It should be noted that touch and sound senses do not pass through this area at all, which could be why the olfactory is so successful at triggering memory.


Scientist have spent many years trying to explain why our brain triggers specific memories with specific smells. Experiments have been run, where a several different patients are asked to smell odors such as leaves, certain foods, lotions, or mass products, and say what they immediately think of. This is designed to capture their initial reaction to specific scents and see how memory is linked. Interestingly, each patient seemed to link different thoughts to each smell. This proves that it is linked to memory, since each person's response was different. They all have different life experiences and emotions attached, so their responses will be different. For example, one individual could smell chocolate and be reminded of when their grandmother use to bake for them as a child. Another person could smell the same thing and immediately become faint because once they ate too much chocolate, became sick and never enjoyed chocolate again.


Earlier I mentioned odortypes and now it's time to expand on that. Many people have experienced walking into someone's house for the first time and immediately being greeted (or repulsed) by an instantaneous smell. This is called odortype. Each person, based on their genetic material, is born with a smell that is as specific to them as a finger print. This, mixed together with laundry smells, hygiene, and other factors can determine whether or not someone's odortype is pleasing or repulsive.