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Scent and Memory: Familiar Smells Evoke Forgotten Feelings

Why your nose is the key to past emotions you wish you could relive.

December 5th, 2011

Tags: Memory
Scent and Memory: Familiar Smells Evoke Forgotten Feelings

Years ago, Christopher Brosius, founder of I Hate Perfume, found a copy of one of his favorite novels that has long been out of print—a signed first edition that’s one of only 100 copies ever made. “It has a wonderful smell,” he says. “I remembered the absolute thrill and joy of finding it and that smell became associated with that moment for me.”

Smell, more than any other sense, is deeply rooted in memory. How many times have you smelled CK One cologne and felt your heart race like it did for your high school crush? Or felt comforted by the smell of bacon and pancakes? When we smell a familiar odor, it’s the emotion connected with the memory that really comes rushing back.

MORE: The Science of Comfort Food

“Smell doesn’t really evoke memory,” says Brosius. “It evokes the emotion we felt at the time that caused the memory to be formed in the first place.” With that in mind, he designs his perfumes to evoke a feeling he remembers fondly, rather than a specific moment.

Courtesy of CB I Hate Perfume"In the Library"
In the Library

One of his perfumes, “In the Library,” recreates the scent of the book. He’s channeled other experiences into perfumes as well: “Burning Leaves,” “Gathering Apples” and “Greenbriar 1968,” which his website describes as “a memory of my grandfather, the sawmill that he owned and the stone house where he lived.”

Smell is indeed uniquely tied to emotion. “Smells are processed and laid down in memory with the emotions that were experienced at the time of the memory,” explains Dr. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Institute. The stronger the emotional trigger (and the more unique the smell), the more closely you’ll link the two. “A strong emotional event causes those odor memories to bind to a greater degree,” he says.

MORE: The Science of Memory

The link occurs because you process smell in the hippocampus and amygdala, parts of the limbic system, or the “emotional brain”—the same area where memories are processed. “Smells induce recall of vivid memories from the past,” says Hirsch, an effect that he calls “olfactory-induced nostalgia.” (I feel that effect whenever I clean my bathroom because, as weird as it sounds, my toilet bowl cleaner smells exactly like the fir tree in a scratch-and-sniff Christmas book I read when I was a kid.)

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