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  • Writer's pictureYoung Lee


Science can articulate The Whys and Whats. Our nose knows. Why Do Smells Trigger Strong Memories? This should not be surprising, as neuroscience makes clear. Smell and memory seem to be so closely linked because of the brain’s anatomy. But you and I: we know this, actually.

A whiff of wanderlust brings us to all sorts of places. Fragrances are funny like that.


Most of us know that distinct salty earthy smell of the ocean just as you jump into the finest of sea sprays...

The delicious scent of baking bread wafting out from the open doors of a nearby bakery can act like a time portal, instantly sweeping you from a busy street in New York to a tiny cafe in Paris that you visited years ago. Scent particles, in general, can revive memories that have been long forgotten.

But why do smells sometimes trigger powerful memories, especially emotional ones?

The short answer is that the brain regions that juggle smells, memories and emotions are very much intertwined. In fact, the way that your sense of smell is wired to your brain is unique among your senses. Harvard’s Venkatesh Murthy, Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology has a lot to say about this. When you chew, molecules in the food, he said, “make their way back retro-nasally to your nasal epithelium,” meaning that essentially, “all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell.”


I would be willing to bet that everyone has a distinct memory of a fragrance that moves them. Like a certain piece of music, a fragrance can immediately transport you to that time and place where you first experienced it. There is actually a science behind this.

Scent memory is a very real thing. It seems that our brain logs scents, much like a diary entry, and the memory registers it. So the next time you smell that same scent, it will take you back to that first experience, be it positive or negative.

This is especially true for smells and sounds. Vision, not as much. The former tends to stir emotions where as the latter stirs cognisance. I am always a bit surprised if someone says ‘until I see it with my own eyes’. Everyone knows, especially with today's hyperconnected world, that the eyes can be fooled. Fooling the nose however, is a much trickier business.

There has been, in fact, an entire industry built around trying to mimic certain aromas. It’s pretty complex stuff, with isomers and synthesis and chemical compounds. And it is very hard to get right. Very often the best scents are distillations from a natural source. Or a blend especially created to elicit a certain emotion. In fact, something like 70% of our emotions are influenced by aromas.

Let’s take, for example, a modern day working woman, although by no means is the use of fragrance limited to women. Let’s call her Sara. When Sara is giving a presentation at work, she does not want - at all - to come across flirty or seductive. There are certain scents which say ‘take me seriously’. Perhaps later that day she wants to switch the message to something else. There is a scent for that too.

In fact, it could be said that there is a different scent for every occasion. As we grow up and refine our tastes, we learn the power of fragrances. But almost everyone will remember the perfume that mom wore when they were a child. Or the scent worn by the girl or boy when they were in high school. Trust me, if you smelled it right now, the memory would be crystal clear.

But also, there are the unforgettable smells that you have experienced which trigger powerful emotions. The aroma of freshly baked cookies or blueberry muffins. The scent of rain or a freshly mown lawn. And of course the smell often considered to be the aroma most closely associated with happiness, the smell of a baby’s head.


Sometimes we don’t even know that it is happening. While it is true that the nose does most of the work with it's millions of olfactory nerves, the body itself has them too, to a much lesser extent. Yet all of us do smell through or skin too. The message is sent to the brain, which compares it to templates, which send back either - I like it or I don’t like it.

It is said that a human can distinguish between 10,000 scents, although to the untrained nose this drops to about 100. But it is pretty amazing that even after years, we can still remember the smell of burnt sugar.

Choose your scents wisely for the right occasion. You’d be surprised by the memories you are creating.

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains....” - Diane Ackerman



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1 Comment

Mar 21, 2022

This is a lovely post, and oh so true! There is a certain laundry detergent that when I smell it, it takes me right back to a vacation we took in Prague. There is a perfume that instantly transports me to the streets of London, evoking happy memories for me. A certain linen smell takes back to my grandmama’s house. Smells are everything! Memory provokers, indeed! Love your photos!!

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