Scents and Sensibility: The Power of Smell in Memory


Posted on July 30, 2014 by Beatrice Huston

When I was a child my mother would tuck me into bed every night. She always sprayed rose water on her face before bed and, to this day, whenever I smell roses, I remember my mother and how safe I felt.

Our sense of smell is very personal and has strong ties to memory. Some people find certain smells comforting while others find the same odors distressing.

In a Spirit magazine article titled, “Scents and Sensibility,” author Annie Monjar visited the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia in search of answers regarding smell and its effect on memory. Monjar explained that, “odor is the only sensory information sent directly to the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for emotion and memory.” This means all other sensory information must take multiple steps before finally connecting to the limbic system; smell is the only sense we have as humans that is directly connected to memory.

Take a minute and think about an experience you’ve had with smell. Do you remember a time when you caught a whiff of something and felt a surge of emotion but didn’t understand why? This isn’t because an odor triggers a memory; rather, it sparks an emotional state. For example, whenever I smell roses – on the street or in a flower shop – I feel comforted and safe because of my mother.

But smell doesn’t always evoke positive memories. For veterans, smell can trigger panic attacks. “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) victims, when they smell odors from war, even before they can say what it is or why it’s happening, have that immediate anxiety and panic. It’s really profound how well it can bring back an emotional state,” explained Pamela Dalton, a scientist at Monell.

So, the next time you experience a mysterious surge of emotion, stop and inhale deeply and evaluate the scent. You may discover the cause of your reaction!

This phenomenon is known as olfactory-evoked recall. While the neurological relationship between nostalgia and odor in general is unclear, the connection is well documented and may have medical significance.

“Research has found that a diminished sense of smell can be an early biomarker for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” explained Monjar.

Smell affects us, whether positively or negatively. We should all take more time to “stop and smell the roses,” reflecting on the emotions and memories that come about.

Category: Dementia & Memory Care

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