You’ve definitely noticed how closely scent and memory are linked. That moment when you got a whiff of a scent and you’re transported back in time—maybe a sweet aroma of cookies has instantly sent you to your grandparents’ kitchen. The recall is almost immediate. So why is scent such a strong source of nostalgia?
In the Beginning
It all starts with the origins of the sense of smell, which helped our primitive ancestors learn about the environment around them and ultimately stay safe and nourished. As the human brain has evolved over time, it’s continued to use smell to detect changes in the environment, and now creates space to store memories about certain scents. Essentially, the odors around you and your memories are directly linked.
Nowadays, we call the early brain the limbic system, which handles the formation of your memories and emotions, including pleasure and repulsion. Your sense of smell is the only sense that doesn’t require any processing to happen before the information reaches the memory center in your brain. And it’s constantly sampling the air around you and taking in new scents with each breath you take.
Since your nose informs you of new things in your environment, it will stop paying attention to familiar scents. For instance, while your fragrance seems to disappear to you after a while, other people can still smell it.
Apply It to Life
You can take advantage of this amazing link in a few simple ways. For example, while you’re studying for a test, smell a specific cologne or fragrance. Then on test day, take the scent with you on a handkerchief—your recall can improve as you breathe in the familiar fragrance during the exam.
Wear a brand new perfume on a special event, such as your wedding day. The tie between scent and memory is strongest when combined with emotional experiences. Next time you smell the fragrance, you’ll be reminded of your big day.
Take a different fragrance with you every time you travel. When you apply that specific scent back at home, you’ll remember what a great time you had on your trip.
Scent and memory are closely tied together because of evolution. You can use that powerful connection to help enhance your own life and remember back your favorite moments.