The Smell of Memories


In our most recent post we talked about why our brains make the past appear rosier and we even got a brief introduction into autobiographical memories. Today we’re continuing our trip down memory lane by talking about another important memory component: smell. How many times did it happen to you to smell some freshly baked cookies and feel as if immediately transported to your grandma’s kitchen, right the night before Christmas? Did you ever wonder why that was? And why does this effect seem to be so much stronger for smell than for any other sense?

If you’ve read our post about memories, then you know that autobiographical memories (the memories you have about yourself and events in your life) are usually more detailed compared to other types of memories. Basically, these memories are not made up only of factual information, but they also contain details about your particular emotions, as well as information from your senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). What makes smell stand out, however, comes down to how connections between sensory and memory areas are organized in the brain.

Normally, on its way to more specialized brain areas (such as memory areas), information from your sensory organs has to pass through a brain region called the thalamus, which in turn relays the information to the appropriate brain areas. Smell, however, is special, in the sense that it completely bypasses the thalamus. Furthermore, before reaching the olfactory cortex, i.e. the area where information about smells becomes consciously perceived, smell makes a pit stop in the olfactory memory and processing areas of the brain. Practically, that means that we memorize and process a smell before we’re even aware of what it is.

The olfactory cortex is also connected to two important emotion-related areas: the amygdala and the limbic system. Again, memories with an emotional component, such as autobiographical memories, tend to be more vivid and longer-lasting. And since the sense of smell is directly connected both with your memory, as well as emotion processing areas, it becomes no longer surprising that various smells are able to trigger such strong feelings and memories.

So next time you’re baking cookies and they end up reminding you of Christmas at your grandma’s, you’ll know it’s because, much like those cookies, your sense of smell really is special.

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