Everywhere around us in our daily lives, smells can trigger memories in an instant! As soon as you open the oven to pull out a tray of freshly baked cookies, the nice and cozy sweet aroma envelopes the space, instantly transporting you back to your childhood days in your grandma’s kitchen. Or the slight lurch you feel inside once you catch a whiff of the disinfectant used in hospitals. How exactly is scent associated with our memories and why is it so powerful?
Our sense of smell is linked to two key areas of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus. While the amygdala is primarily concerned with processing smells and the emotions we experience, the hippocampus is connected to our memory centers. The two together give us an experience that leads to triggered memories and emotions when a smell is processed. Researchers say that memories connected with our other senses are not as strong, but it has been shown that over time, our ability to bring back memories linked to smells increases. In fact, it’s so strong that some researchers are investigating smell as the way of combating certain mental diseases that are on-set by age, like dementia or Alzheimer’s. However, smell is slower than any of our other senses for short term, but it lasts for a longer time period.
Smells offer us wonderful surprises from time to time in the form of vivid nostalgia of days long past, they also serve a more important purpose. One of the most important functions of smell is to alert us of danger or possible threats to ourselves. For example, the smell of smoke. We can recognize it long before we see or hear any actual fire. One hypothesis is that our sense of smell may be linked to our memories as a type of survival tactic. In the case of the fire, a person would be warned of imminent danger before fire reaches them. Similarly, when milk has gone bad, we recognize the smell before drinking it. If we consider how many times our sense of smell protects us from severe injury, illness or death, it becomes much more significant that sense of smell is tied so closely with memory on such a long-term basis.
One of the best way our sense of smell rewards us is through the memories we have made with perfumes or fragrances because they usually are good memories as well, and then using that same perfume after years or even getting a whiff of it during the day brings back memories that may be hiding at the back and makes the rest of our day.