- Smells can trigger powerful and emotional memories
- Scents are the only sensation with a direct path to the emotional and memory centers of the brain
- There are times when a person may only feel the emotion but won’t remember the experience
The distinct smell of things such as flowers and food can sometimes recreate experiences from the past. Smells can trigger powerful and emotional memories, but why? Researchers point at the special connection between memory and the process of smelling.
Scents float in through the nose and into the olfactory bulbs of the br
ain, where the sensation is processed into a form that can be interpreted by the brain. The neurons then transport this information to the br ain’s amygdala, which processes emotions, and into the hippocampus; the part of the brain involved in learning and memory formation.
John McGann, from Rutgers University in New Jersey, explained that scents are the only sensation with a direct path to the emotional and memory centers of the br
ain. All other senses have to pass the thalamus, which serves as a switchboard that relays information to the rest of the brain. Scents bypass this region.
This mechanism explains the intimate connection between memories, emotions and scents. This is also why memories that were triggered by scents tend to be more emotional and more evocative compared with other senses.
According to Rachel Herz, from Brown University in Rhode Island, who wrote the book “The Scent of Desire,” when a person smells something with connection to a meaningful event in the past, that person will initially have an emotional response to the sensation, followed by a memory.
There are times though when memories do not resurface. The person may only feel the emotion of an event that happened in the past, but won’t remember the experience.
Herz said that the strange relation between emotions and scents also have a simple evolutionary explanation. The amygdala actually evolved from a region of the brain that was originally involved in detecting chemicals.
“Emotions tell us about approaching things and avoiding things, and that’s exactly what the sense of smell does too,” Herz said. “So, they’re both very intimately connected to our survival.”
Have you ever remembered someone because of a scent? Or perhaps a place? Tell us about it!