Smell and memory - our deepest link

Smell and memory – our deepest link

Smell and memory are inextricably linked – but smell is actually our quickest route to old and forgotten memories.

Why do smells have such a powerful effect on our memory – more than sights or sounds?

Smell actually has a special place amongst all of the senses. Sensations from the other four – sights, sounds, tactile sensations, and tastes – are all sent to the thalamus. From here they are directed to the appropriate areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which deals with emotion, and the hippocampus which deals with memory.

Smell however is received directly by the amygdala and hippocampus. It arrives ‘unmediated’ and so has the power to evoke forgotten memories or trigger strong emotions.

So smell and memory are more strongly physically linked than our other senses?

That’s right. In fact, some recent research suggests that the building blocks of memory are put together in part of the brain called the Anterior Olfactory Nucleus – an important area for our sense of smell.

This is why you might remember the smell of chlorine when you think about school trips to the swimming baths, or the smell of a lover’s perfume when you think back to them. The loss of that aspect of memory is one of the reasons why anosmia, or the loss of smell, can be so psychologically distressing.

Is there anything practical I can do with this link between smell and memory?

One suggestion is to buy a different perfume in the airport and wear it every day while you’re away. Stopping wearing it when you get back will let the scent take you straight back to that holiday whenever you smell it again.

If you’re trying to capture the mindset of ‘peak performance’ the smell can be a shortcut to that as well. For instance, when golfers take a good shot they can try and ‘anchor’ that moment and mindset with a word or a gesture. Using a particular smell, such as an essential oil, that they have reserved just for those moments, can prove to be much more effective.

What about the smells of particular people?

Partly the effect that other people’s natural odour has on us is due to their pheromones. Partly though it’s also due to the effect of those smells on our emotions and our memories.

It was missing the smell of her late father that led Kate Apalategui to start a business called Kalain – a business that specialises in recreating the smell of those who are missed. Using a piece of clothing or fabric closely associated with that person (or pet) they extract the components that make up that familiar smell.

Normally comprising 100 different molecules these are then combined by a team of organic chemists to recreate that particular scent. The result is a small (10 millilitres) bottle that will continue to trigger memories, whether during a ‘temporary absence’, such as working away, or that most permanent absence that comes to all of us.

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