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Why Are Smell Memories So Strong?

on June 03, 2021

 

For most people, smell memories can be extremely vivid and transporting. The smell of fresh-cut grass can strongly recall a childhood summer. Pipe smoke can remind you of your grandfather; fresh-baked bread can reflect a bright and sunny morning on a family holiday.

Whatever the specific smell, we all know this feeling of being reminded of someone, something, or someplace when confronted with a particular scent. But what is especially interesting about this process is how much stronger scent is at recalling memories than other senses.

In many circles, this phenomenon is called the Proust Effect. The reason for this name is Marcel Proust's series the "À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu". Among the seven volumes published in the early 20th century, Proust recalls a moment when he sat down to eat a madeleine cake. Suddenly, a "shudder" runs through him as he experiences an involuntary childhood memory about his aunt's house.

Throughout "À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu," Proust recalls autobiographical memories intertwined with scent. Often, he highlights the geographical connection of the smell in detail.

Over the years, many different pieces of scientific research have tried to get at this problem. 

How Does Scent Work?

A scent is a chemical that enters the nose and reacts with the olfactory bulbs. It is here that they are first transformed into a sensation that the brain can decode. From that interaction, the scent is then carried to the amygdala (emotional) and then the hippocampus. (memory)

Interestingly, according to Rutgers University's John McGann, a psychology professor, smells are the only sensations that travel directly to the amygdala and the hippocampus.

McGann notes that all other senses travel to the thalamus, which acts as a switchboard. From there, sensory information is sent to the appropriate regions. However, scent bypasses the thalamus.

According to McGann, scent can reach the emotional and memory parts of the brain in a synapse or two. Most interestingly, scent can recall memories that would otherwise be impossible to retrieve. For many, this is its magic.

What Does The Science Say?

Recent research performed by Christina Zelano from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has proved very interesting. She and her team used intracranial electrophysiology and neuroimaging to help with the question.

For years neuroscientists have known that the limbic systems are the region of the brain most responsible for memory and emotion. Indeed, one particular part of the limbic system, the hippocampus, seems to be the strongest.

While highly complex, we can still split the brain into three layers that were, in effect, built on top of each other.

 #1: Reptilian Brain: Instinctual Brain

#2: Limbic Brain: The Emotional or Feeling Brain

#3: Neocortex: The Rational or Thinking Brain.

 As Zelano explains in the paper, humans experienced an incredible expansion of the neocortex at one point in our evolution.

This caused a vast re-organizing or re-wiring of access to our memory networks. As our brains became larger, the scents were re-routed — except for one: smell.

Smell remained directly connected to the hippocampus (the emotional region). While vision, hearing, and touch still connect to the hippocampus, it is through an intermediary association.

This backs up the earlier findings by John McGann and provides a concrete reason why smell can affect us like no other sense.

The Importance of Smell to Our Well Being

The information is fascinating in its own right; however, it is most instructive in demonstrating how smell affects our lives and personal wellbeing.

Indeed, there's an increasing body of research that links olfaction and depression.

A study from 2016 concluded that patients suffering from depression have a reduced sense of smell. Indeed, this research might lead to new thinking about how to treat the problem of happiness.

New Horizons?

A recent article in Horizon magazine talked about something that perfume lovers have understood for a long time: the idea that manufacturers could put happiness in a bottle.

Alex Whiting has talked about using chemosignals to create scents to help people feel happy or alleviate fear. However, these chemicals are often odorless and would be more about feeling great than smelling great.

Conclusion

The simple conclusion is that scents can help elevate our mood and recall rich memories. People have known this for years as represented by their love of flowers and perfume.

When we understand the power of scent, we can begin to use it for several benefits—scented candles and fragrances in our home can lead to creating a happier environment.

Of course, the most powerful of all is how we can apply perfume to evoke emotions and memories, both for ourselves and others.

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