Olfaction: Sense of Smell
Have you ever noticed that certain smells bring up a memory in an instant? Do you know why this happens?
How is "Smell" Different?
We'll start by saying this; memories linked to smell are often stronger and more vivid than memories linked to other senses. They are also often linked to memories from when you were ten years old and younger.
It's funny how the brain works. Your brain actually processes smells different than all of your other senses. Your other senses travel through the thalamus, which reroutes sense's signals to their appropriate processing sensors.
Smells completely bypass this step.
The smell signals go directly to the olfactory bulb (the smell analyzer). This region is connected to your amygdala and hippocampus which help handle memories and emotion. Scientists speculate that this is the reason smell can initiate such a strong emotional response.
How Smell Works
Your body contains at least 1000 receptors for smell, which makes this process a little complex, but quick when recognizing a scent. Having so many receptors helps you determine the difference between multiple scents, along with recalling what they actually are.
This system creates a response that forces smells to trigger memories. A scent can make you recall a very specific memory, usually memories that are thought of less often. In turn, this memory helps your brain recognize the name for this scent. When you smell something frequently, your brain usually associates it with that space or item, and not a memory. It's a case by case basis.
These triggers are not all positive memories though. Your brain tries to block out any bad experiences, but when it's overpowered by these senses, it can automatically bring up a negative memory/emotion.
Taking a Moment
Scent response is a main reason why many people use aromatherapy. Essential oils have a strong aroma that can help ease stress, anxiety, and have calming effects; depending on the scent. Others have found that using these essential oils throughout the day helps relieve negative emotions.
The next time you are in the middle of a special moment that you want to remember, take a minute and smell your surroundings. You can even bring something with a strong odor to try and drill that memory into your brain, but remember, the best scents to trigger memories are the ones smelled less often.
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Want to take a deeper dive into why smells trigger memories? Check out this article from Bustle.