Psychology

Why Scent often Triggers Memories and Nostalgia



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How many times have you caught a faint whiff of a scent that immediately reminded you of the ‘good old days’ or long forgotten events in your life? Have you ever noticed how certain smells or fragrances fill you with nostalgia and revive feelings you had sometime in the past?

When it comes to bringing back old memories, scent is the most powerful of all the senses. The intricate aspect of human brain structure explains why scent is so intimately related to memory and why, despite not playing a major role in our daily lives, it can often trigger a strong déjà vu like sensation whenever we are confronted with specific scents.

Because of the very close location of the olfactory bulb to the limbic system, associated with memories and emotions, scent can instantly trigger distant memories and a sudden feeling of nostalgia.

Though the way in which the brain is hardwired makes the close relationship between scent and memory physically possible, the connection materializes at a higher, more abstract level, through conditioned response. New scents are learned through association to the situation in which they were first experienced and are therefore, automatically linked to those memories. This complex process accounts for people’s different reactions to scent and the human ability to recall past events when exposed to particular smells.

So for example, a particular fragrance can be associated with a certain person or period in one’s life. Similarly, other scents can become associated with feelings of happiness or sadness and being exposed to them again will awaken the emotions that were experienced in the past. This can also cause people to avoid and dislike certain scents, or quite the opposite, to seek them out and enjoy sensing them on a daily basis.

Because each person experiences different things in life, the association between scents and emotions/memories is unique to every individual; however, there are smells that have been identified as triggers of childhood memories in most people. The smell of bakery fresh out the oven or the elusive odor of nature reminds many of their carefree childhood, towards which they look retrospectively with feelings of nostalgia and joy. However, their perception of the past is often idealized and in fact, many negative details are left out of their recollections.

Similarly, in many subtle ways that sometimes go unnoticed, scent continues to be relevant to our daily lives, even in nowadays’ visually driven society. Our sense of scent can subconsciously influence our choices through its association with memories and emotions and, though its importance is frequently overseen, it has contributed to shaping our perceptions of the world and our psychological makeup.

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