How Scents Can Trigger Meaningful Memories

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Scents can trigger memories from years ago and instantly pull you back into another time. For me, the scent of chicken soup reminds me of my childhood kitchen and my mom. After moving many miles away from home, I often cook chicken soup using her recipe whenever I’m feeling homesick, because the scent automatically makes me feel as though she is right there next to me.

Some of us share collective memories when it comes to scent. For example, the smell of pumpkin pie can make many of us remember the fall holidays. The smell of chlorine can make us remember the summer and swimming pools.

Most of us have scent linked to memories that are specific to us. For example, Each time I went to my grandparents’ when they babysat me, I used to play with three very small dolls my grandma bought for me. I always kept the dolls in an old small drawer in their dresser that had a distinct and musty smell. Years later as an adult, when I encounter this smell, I am brought back to the times I played dolls with my grandmother and I become emotional. I remember the happiness I felt then and I feel the grief I still have over her death.

Usually, the scents we associate with memories are meaningful ones that have had an impact in our lives.

Scientifically, the reason why scents can evoke memories is due to the olfactory bulb in your brain. The olfactory bulb lies within your nose and the bottom of your brain. It is connected to the parts of your brain that control your memory and emotion — the amygdala and hippocampus. This is why scents can automatically trigger strong emotions and memories.

The connection between scents and memory is known as the “Proust Phenomenon.” This phenomenon was named after the French writer, Marcel Proust, who wrote in his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), about a childhood memory his character recalled after smelling biscuits and tea. The novel was first published in 1913 and influenced existing research between smell and memories.

Certain scents can leave us feeling emotional and nostalgic. The memories associated with smells can be triggered by soaps, food, laundry detergents, nature, perfumes and more. Sometimes we are completely unaware of why a specific scent reminds us of an individual memory, but still, we get emotional.

Scents can lead us to remember both positive and negative memories from our past. In fact, our sense of smell is most associated with triggering emotions and memories than any of our other senses. Our ancestors experienced this phenomenon as well and reflected on their own childhood memories.

Which scents evoke memories for you? Share your stories with us!

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