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The Smell-Memory Connection

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

Every once in a while we will get a new product in that will have a scent that we can't quite place. Sure, the ingredients will spell it out, but the scent will "remind us of something". For example, Body Lounge's Grapefruit Bergamot Lotion reminds me of a lotion my mother used when I was little. The smell of it brings an endorphin rush and calms me. I love it.

So why is it that smell packs such a punch with our memories and emotions? Why do some people find the smell of things great, while others find them repulsive? The answer lies in our anatomy and goes all the way back to infancy.

Dawn Goldworm, is the co-founder and director of what she calls her “olfactive branding company,” 12.29, which uses the “visceral language of scent to transform brand-building” in the actual buildings where her clients reside (mostly through ventilation systems or standalone units). She explains that smell is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, and it’s the one that is the most developed in a child through the age of around 10 when sight takes over. And because “smell and emotion are stored as one memory,” said Goldworm, childhood tends to be the period in which you create “the basis for smells you will like and hate for the rest of your life.”

It is likely that much of our emotional response to smell is governed by association, something which is borne out by the fact that different people can have completely different perceptions of the same smell. Take perfume for example; one person may find a particular brand ‘powerful’, ‘aromatic’ and ‘heady’, with another describing it as ‘overpowering’, ‘sickly’ and ‘nauseating’. Despite this, however, there are certain smells that all humans find repugnant, largely because they warn us of danger; the smell of smoke, for example, or of rotten food.

Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory.

"Smell and memory seem to be so closely linked because of the brain’s anatomy," said Harvard’s Venkatesh Murthy, Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. The same goes for taste and memory. "When you chew, molecules in the food," he said, “make their way back retro-nasally to your nasal epithelium,” meaning that essentially, “all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell.” Murthy said you can test that theory by pinching your nose when eating something such as vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Instead of tasting the flavor, he said, “all you can taste is sweet.” Some spices you add to your foods will have minimal taste, but the smell will make the food have a more complex flavor.

In addition to being the sense most closely linked to memory, smell is also highly emotive. The perfume industry is built around this connection, with perfumers developing fragrances that seek to convey a vast array of emotions and feelings; from desire to power, vitality to relaxation. Hence, the validity of aromatherapy!

When people come into the Co-op, they will sometimes say, "Oh it smells SO good in here! I love the smell of health food stores." While Tracy and I both know what they are talking about, we can't actually smell what they are smelling, because our brains have marked it as "safe" and our brains do not need to pay so close attention to the odors. The same goes for your homes. You will not smell your home's definitive odor, but people that come to visit will. This brain response (or lack there of) is evolution's answer to knowing when you are safe and when you aren't. Imagine our ancestors huddled in a cave, pre-deodorant, pre-perfume, pre-...anything. It probably smelled pretty ripe, but they probably didn't smell a thing, because their brain was telling them they were safe and should focus instead on any outlying scents that may come from a passing food source or predator.

I could go on forever on this subject because I find it fascinating, but I'll leave you to explore more articles, should you want to dive down the rabbit hole like I do:

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