Scent and Memory

Take a deep whiff? Does it trigger thoughts, memories?

I have realized that over the years I associate certain scents with memories that bring back something special. As a child I grew up with a Mom that loved to bake bread. Every Saturday we started early in the morning mixing the yeast slurry, combining the ingredients for the bread, letting it raise in a warm place with a linen towel covering it. At some point my job was buttering the bread loaf pans, and helping my mom put the dough in for its final rise before baking. The house filled with a sweet yeasty yumminess that culminated with that hot baked bread coming out of the oven. There were times when we devoured it with butter before that loaf could cool. To this day, and my mom has been gone since 1992, when I smell fresh baked bread my thoughts turn to that little kitchen, and an audience of the whole family waiting for hot baked bread.

Each of us has scents that trigger a flood of memories… whether it is the smell of a man’s aftershave, or that bright smell of tomato leaves in the hot summer garden.

I have been fascinated with this connection of scent and memory and wanted to try to understand this connection further. So i headed to the internet, and spent hours reading some of the academic research on this topic and they revealed curious thoughts. Here is a quick synopsis:

  • Smell and memory are intertwined, and the ability of aromas to bring back highly specific memories is becoming better understood. 
  • Scents elicit more emotional memories than other types of stimuli, and since odor-evoked memories tend to be positive, odors may be especially helpful for enhancing mood states. 
  • Scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain’s smell center, known as the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which might explain why the smell of something can trigger a detailed memory or even intense emotion. 
  • Children tend to create the basis for smells they will like and hate for the rest of their life, and people tend to smell in color. 
  • Scents can serve as a memory trigger, augmenting our ability to recall or recognize information.

The topic is a deep well, perhaps a rabbit hole, that can keep going deeper and deeeper. But the connection of scent and memories is well defined.

What is your scent triggered memory or memories?

As an aside, often we hear stories of this scent to memory relationship when we are sitting at an art show. Someone will grab a bar of soap, take a deep sniff and tell us their memory. Often it is the old florals, like lilac, lilly of the valley, or gardenia. We love hearing these stories because we can relate and feel the same way.