Does the smell of chicken roast take you back to Sunday lunches at your Grandma’s? Or perhaps a whiff of lavender reminds you of the perfume your mom loves so much? Well, you’re not alone.
Certain scents have a funny way of bringing back memories of specific instances and having a particular effect on you.
Sniffing Up the Science
When a scent hits our senses, it comes in contact with the olfactory bulb located in the brain. The neural inputs conveyed by the scent are processed by the olfactory bulb’s receptor cells and the information is relayed to the brain. Once properly identified, the scents are then sent off to the amygdala and the hippocampus for further processing on a higher level. This involves memory and emotion.
The amygdala begins to associate these odors with positive and negative results. Most commonly linked with fear, the amygdale helps the brain in recognizing negative stimuli.
The hippocampus, on the other hand, connects particular smells with memories of specific occasions. With the passage of time, the brain’s neuron firing adapts to this to the extent that the associative process becomes second nature and a person experiences nostalgia by certain smells.
With these chemical reactions initiated by the olfactory bulb, the brain is able to associate a wide range of smells with an even wider range of memories. These memory triggers lie on the positive and negative ends of the spectrum and are sensitive to the intensity of the memories experienced. For a person with full olfactory functioning, certain smells can evoke particular memories.
This is why the scent of an orchard in blossom can bring up memories you’re your childhood when you had picnic in a park, for example. The positive smell acts as a trigger, spontaneously recalling an experience you had long forgotten about and having you basking in sweet nostalgia.
Unfortunately, scents can serve as a negative trigger too. People who have experienced physical or emotional trauma in their past may strongly associate a particular to their unpleasant memories and have to relive it in their minds. This can be especially painful and traumatizing for individuals suffering from PTSD.
Olfactory impulses aren’t only associated with memory; they can affect one’s emotions too! As the scent triggers a memory, the memory in turn triggers subconscious emotions related to that experience.
Scents serve a much greater purpose than merely smelling good or bad. They also trigger specific feelings, which can range from attraction to relaxation to irritation. Think of the smell of freshly baked cookies.
While it may bring back an old memory of your grandma baking, it will also leave you feeling relaxed and content, triggering positive memories and emotions.
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