All around us, in our everyday lives, smells have the power to trigger memories in an instant! As soon as you open the oven to remove a tray of freshly baked cookies, the warm sweet aroma envelopes the room, instantly transporting you back to your childhood days in grandma's kitchen. Or think about the slight lurch you feel deep down inside when you catch a whiff of the disinfectant used in hospitals. How exactly is scent related to our memories and why is it so powerful?
Our sense of smell is directly linked to two key areas of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus. While the amygdala is primarily concerned with processing smells and is involved in emotions we experience, the hippocampus is connected to our memory centers. Put the two together and we get an experience that results in triggered memories and emotions when a smell is processed. Unlike memories connected with some of our other senses, studies have shown that over time, our ability to recognize memories linked to smells increases. In fact, it is so strong that some researchers are investigating smell as a way of combating certain mental diseases that are on-set by age, such as dementia or Alzheimer's. Ironically, olfaction is slower than any of our other senses in the short term, but it lasts far longer on a more extensive time span.
While smells can offer up wonderful surprises from time to time in the form of vivid nostalgia of days long past, they also serve a far more important purpose. One of the most important functions of smell is to alert us of danger or possible threats to our well-being. For example, think of the smell of smoke. We can recognize it long before we see or hear any actual fire. One hypothesis is that our sense of smell may be tied to our memories as a type of survival tactic. In the case of the fire, a person would be warned of imminent danger before fire actually reached them. Similarly, when milk has gone bad, we recognize the smell before actually drinking it. If we consider how many times our sense of smell protects us from severe injury, illness or death, it becomes much more significant that olfaction is tied so closely with memory on such a long-term basis.
Despite being one of our oldest senses, olfaction in humans has not really changed a lot over the centuries. Although in modern times we don't typically require our sense of smell to warn us of quietly approaching predators in the wild, it still does help us in many ways. While some smells reassure us that we are in safe environments due to associations with previous memories, other smells can help divert us away from potential risks.
Learn more about olfactory memory by browsing through the informative resources below.
Noses and Memory Centers - Read how our sense of smell and nerves work to create or trigger memories
Smell and Dreams - Amazingly, smell doesn't only affect us during waking hours but even while we are asleep!
A Lack of Olfaction - What happens to people who cannot smell or suffer a smell disorder?
The Olfactory System - Learn how air-borne particles are processed through the olfactory system to develop memories and emotions.
Smell Sensors - Smelling occurs on an extremely small scale, starting with mere molecules. Very often, even though people think they cannot smell something, they are still able to accurately identify it.