Have you ever caught a whiff of something that immediately transported you to somewhere in your past? Maybe it was the hand soap in the postpartum room of the hospital where you became a mother. Or how about that energy drink that instantly makes your stomach turn as you remember a night of one too many Jager Bombs. No matter who you are or what you have experienced so far in life, nearly everyone on Earth has smelled something that triggers a memory. But why is that?
Our brains are amazing and complex organs that control thought, memory, and emotion. They sort and interpret information that our senses are collecting all day long. Most of our senses (sight, sound, touch, and taste) send information to the part of the brain where the thalamus is located. The thalamus is our body’s relay station, where information goes to be processed before moving on to the hippocampus (the part of our brains responsible for memory and cognition) and the amygdala (responsible for processing emotion) for interpretation. This, however, is not the case with our sense of smell.
When we smell an odor in the air, our olfactory receptor cells send those molecules to the olfactory bulb. Once in the olfactory bulb, over 1,000 genes are responsible for coding the odor into smaller subsets, or categories, in order to interpret the information. The olfactory bulb runs from our nose to the base of the brain with a direct connection to both the amygdala and hippocampus.
This direct connection to the parts of our brain where memory and emotion are processed seems to explain why smell triggers our memories much quicker and more intensely than any of our other senses. And because most of our first smells occur in childhood, most of our scent memory is connected to our early years.
So the next time you’re heading off on an epic vacation or planning a big event, incorporate a new smell (perfume/cologne, candle, etc) to make a new scent-memory connection.