How the mind links scents to memories

How the mind links scents to memories

The flower fragrance that brings back your wedding day, the whiff of baking bread that reminds you of granny’s kitchen… Why do smells have such a powerful link to memories?

The flower fragrance that brings back your wedding day, the whiff of baking bread that reminds you of granny’s kitchen… Why do smells have such a powerful link to memories?

Scents are important to us, triggering memories or a sudden rush of emotion, whether it’s the smell of a new-born grandchild, or the lingering scent of our partner’s aftershave on his jacket. But why are smells so powerful?

Making sense of scents

Why does your sense of smell – more than any of the other four senses – send you straight back to a moment, place or feeling?

Neuroscientists have been researching this for years. They’ve learnt that there are around a thousand different smell receptor types, so we can pick out very specific smells and link them to particular moments.

But of course we don’t have names for them all, so we are only able to identify them when they’re linked to something we can easily describe: ‘the smell of freshly mown grass’, for example, or ‘that smell like rain on a hot pavement’.

This means the smells we are unable to explain, the ones which are less specific, are ‘stored’ differently – in an emotional way rather than in a descriptive way.

Deep in the brain

The part of the brain that processes smells is called the ‘olfactory bulb’, and is right next door to your hippocampus (yes, there is a hippocampus in your brain). That’s significant because the hippocampus creates memories, particularly those associated with experiences.

Smell is the only sense that goes straight into the brain, without having to pass through pathways to get there, unlike hearing and sight. Deep in the brain, untouched by descriptive words, the sensory impressions can therefore easily get jumbled up with memories of specific places and moments.

Facts versus emotions

These ‘Proustian’ – or involuntary – memories transport us so quickly to our past because, when you remember something easy to name or something tougher to place, different parts of the brain are activated.

When we try to remember things, we focus on the details – the wind was blowing hard and we were at the top of a huge hill, for example – rather than feelings. Smell goes into the emotional memory area of the brain, while words go into the thinking bit.

So, next time you find yourself feeling nostalgic thanks to a specific whiff, you now have an idea why!

This article was brought to you by Lenor. Help create lasting memories by adding a capful of Lenor Fabric Conditioner to your laundry, available in a gorgeous array of scents.

What smells do you associate with your childhood? Let us know below.

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