Scents have this incredible power to bring us back to a snapshot of the past. They leave a good or bad impression when we meet someone new. And they help us to avoid bad situations that we associate with equally bad memories. Have you ever noticed how if you’re not on the same frequency as another person, you also can’t smell them or their smell is unpleasant to you? It’s not a coincidence. Our sense of smell works in an incredible way to help us attain a better judgment, when head and heart are at war (it happens), among other things.
The odor molecules that we breathe in (yes, absolutely everything in our world is made up of molecules), pass receptor cells in our body which then generate an impulse (http://bit.ly/1EYOSZy). A couple of steps and an olfactory nerve later, the impulse(s) pass the smell information to the olfactory bulb which is responsible for processing the signal. All of these stages are linked to the parts of our brain that feel, judge, and remember.
Smell and memory are thus closely linked. According to some sources, they are even more connected than any other two senses. Smells evoke emotions, which may lead to actions. This is what the perfume industry counts on with their marketing strategy. We’re essentially being manipulated– surprise! According to them, you can be a sexy man-eating vamp, an innocent flower-girl enjoying the summer breeze on a swing hung from a tree (too vivid?), a virile power house in a 2009 Mercedes SLR (think black and white) or coolness personified, riding a horse and smell like the reincarnation of the Marlboro man (without a side of smoke). Fascinating. Still, if you’ve noticed – the same scent has a different note on each person – ah, the beauty of individuality.
Floral scents are actually mood-manipulators, according to a research study at the University of Pennsylvania (http://bit.ly/1mPRPhi). It found that due to our better mood as a result of smelling flours, our memory is actively searching for a connection in its dusty shelf to match that mood. Furthermore, they found that floral odors can not only make you happy, but as a consequence, they promote social interaction. Now don’t go running to the next Sephora in search for last year’s Kenzo. Your choice of smell may evoke a reaction in others that you may not have intended – at the work place, for instance. In a different study, results showed that male co-workers devalued the candidate’s job related activities when they wore perfume (http://1.usa.gov/1zNHNLf).
The smell of a spiced pumpkin candle can be overwhelming. Or in my case, it makes me feel at home. Since I have a strong affinity to Halloween and Christmas, I place all smells that I remotely associate with these holidays in my comfort zone. I also decide very quickly if I like a person or not based on their smell. Very rarely does a person not have a smell to them – and it’s up to your brain to decide whether it’s a GO or a NOOOOO…. but you will KNOWWW (sorry, I’m on a roll)!
The sensation of nostalgia and smell being linked is basically due to our learning process. Pavlov’s classic bell and saliva generation. We’ve been trained in a certain way to associate memories with a smell. “It’s often said that a person is the sum of their memories. Your memory and recall is what makes you who you are” (http://bit.ly/19iu81z). Of course, the human memory system is more complicated than just the sum of the smells it has once inhaled. The olfactory-evoked recall is what we call a memory evoked by a scent, and idealized in that sense (http://bbc.in/1dOJqyv). We drown out the negative memory because the smell we remember was filtered through our memory and eliminated: poof – bad memory be gone.
It’s all the nicer that we can create new memories with new smells right now – being in a certain situation for the first time, meeting a person for the first time, visiting a place for the first time. All of these first times may be future memories that your brain will remember. And while you inhale that day’s memory, you just think to yourself “Oh, as if it were yesterday”.