Why is scent so closely tied to memory?
Why is it that when I smell fresh cut grass at the height of spring, I’m immediately taken back to the last day of school, when my friends and I’d go skipping from the schoolhouse and straight to the lake, or when a tray of freshly baked cookies comes out of the oven, why do I think of my grandmother, Rose, and how she used to let me lick the batter from the spoon? When we breathe something in, its scent goes straight to the olfactory bulb, the brain’s smell center. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and the amygdala, its emotional center. So it makes perfect sense that a smell can trigger a detailed memory or an intense emotion.
But why are scent memories so much more impactful than, say, sight or taste? In November of 2017, scientists discovered that scent memories may actually be saved in the olfactory bulb, like an old chest full of precious heirlooms waiting to be rediscovered. So not only do our brains link scent to memory, they store long-term memories as well. This just doesn’t happen as intensely with sight, touch, sound, or taste. Not to mention, we have at least 1,000 different types of smell receptors, compared to four types of light sensors and about four types of touch receptors.
So next time you’re taking a big whiff of newly bloomed roses, imagine 1,000 receptors transmitting signals to your olfactory bulb and triggering your hippocampus and amygdala with memories and emotions...or better yet, let biology do its thing, and simply let the memory wash over you.
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