You’re strolling down a path, when you brush past a lilac bush. You take a deep breath in, and suddenly memories of your grandmother flood in.
“Nana…” you think. “Why am I suddenly recalling my gran?”
Then you recall the big lilac bushes in her backyard.
We’ve heard it all before: scent triggers memory. But just how does it work?
Scent -> Emotion
Last week, we talked about the power of our sense of smell. And perhaps this power is one of the reasons why scent triggers emotion and memory recall.
Consider ads for body fragrance, perfume, or scented products. Marketing specialists know that scent triggers certain emotions and, thus, attracts consumers to particular fragrances. And so, they bank on that.
The scent of nostalgia at Christmas -> buy a pine-scented candle.
The scent of joy in the summer -> a citric body spray will do the trick.
The scent of love/romance -> try something dusky and mysterious, like sandalwood.
Some fragrances serve as aphrodisiacs, others trigger positivity, and some even trigger productivity.
This association between fragrances and emotion is what may provoke recollections and vivid memories.
How Does It Work?
- The nose has olfactory receptors that are linked to the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion in the brain.
- These smell sensations travel to the cortex, which is the seat of cognitive recognition.
- Recognition only sparks after the depths of our brains have been ignited, so after feeling a certain emotion from a scent, it usually takes a moment for cognition and memory to catch up.
Why Don’t We Value Smell?
So, if our sense of smell is so powerful, why don’t we value it as much as, say, sight or touch or hearing.
During the 18th and 19th century, scientists and philosophers revalued the senses. The period’s elite believed sight to be the most important sense, the most civilized. The superior sense, if you will.
Sight was based on reason, while smell was considered of a lower order. According to Katie Fox’s The Smell Report, published by the Social Issues Research Center, smell was considered:
“a primitive, brutish ability associated with savagery and even madness.”
The culture of the time drew the link between smell and emotion and believed that this connection threatened the rational detachment that was in vogue.
This strange view of smell has impacted culture’s relation to it, especially when it comes to language. We’ll talk more about that next week.