Freshly baked cookies. Warm vanilla. Flowers. Citrus. Barbecue. Clean laundry. Smells are one of the simple pleasures in life. On a deeper level, scent is special because it has the keen ability to capture magical moments and transform them into meaningful memories. It’s a crucial part of the human experience and who we are as individuals.
“We process information through smell,” says Saskia Wilson-Brown, director of The Institute for Art and Olfaction. “[Smell] goes to our olfactory bulb, which sends it along to the brain and allows recognition.” Like sight, sound, taste, and touch, scent is a sensory input that can trigger memory and emotion. “It’s a little bit different than other senses because it bypasses the reasonable part of our mind and goes straight to the parts that process memory and learned response. For that reason, it’s more primal than, say, sight, which we’re more able to analyze.”
Smell is also linked closely to taste. While orthonasal olfaction is when we smell through our nose, retronasal olfaction is when we smell through the back of our mouth. In fact, the melting pot of flavors we’re experiencing is smell. In a Harvard Gazette article, life sciences professor Venkatesh Murthy explains that you can test this theory by pinching your nose when eating something like ice cream. Instead of tasting the specific flavor, he says, “All you can taste is sweet.” That’s why scent, like foods from childhood, can help us happily recollect the good ol’ times.
“Everyone’s scent memories are pretty specific to them,” Wilson-Brown says. “For instance, people often say, ‘Lavender is soothing.’ What they forget in that statement is that they have been conditioned to believe that lavender is soothing through social input and through their own experience.”
If a family member lovingly put lavender on your pillowcase when you were stressed, you might have a positive association with the fragrance. If you were a day worker on a lavender farm or had less-pleasant associations with lavender, it might not be as relaxing. “Personal experience,” Wilson-Brown says, “has so much to bear in it.”
There are all types of cultural and personal insights that feed into the idea of a smell being appealing or appalling. Throughout life, we can play with and create our own exciting stories through this sensory experience. Here’s how you can jog old memories or create ones with your nose — and the power of scent.
Grow your scent muscle
For those who may lose their sense of smell as they age, there’s actually a way to improve it. Because your nose is a muscle, it can be strengthened and worked out daily. Trade weightlifting for sniffing by paying attention with your nose. A 2017 Brain Imaging and Behavior paper found that you can increase the size of your olfactory bulbs by creating a regimen of nosing four aromas — whether they’re wine, food, or fragrances — twice a day for about 30 seconds each.
Wear it for months
A fun and unique experiment, Wilson-Brown suggests, is inspired by Andy Warhol’s idea to create memory boxes of fragrances. “Andy Warhol did this cool thing where he would wear a scent for three months and then put it aside in a box,” she explains. “He did that in order to capture the memory of those three months through the visceral sense of smell.”
Wilson-Brown encourages experimenters to commit to wearing a scent for a certain period of time, to mentally observe or write about that chapter in a journal, and revisit the scent a few months later to see what arises. While you might need a bit of a budget for perfume, you can also tinker with this creative method through more affordable body sprays, room spritzes, and alternative fragrances.
Create a fragrance routine
Jessica Murphy, a fragrance lecturer and writer at Now Smell This and Perfume Professor, says you can use a personal fragrance or home fragrance to set a mood or create a routine that lets your mind know when it’s time to work, relax, or do another activity. “Fragrance can create a private ambience for you and your thoughts,” she says, “like music or lighting or a beautiful wallpaper around you.”
Start scent impressions
Wilson-Brown encourages everyone to stop only smelling the roses. “Be more conscious about how we process smell,” she advises. Start jotting down your scent impressions during the day and what certain scents make you feel or think of — from a spicy curry to an extravagant essential oil.
“Developing the conscious awareness of this more unconscious process is a way of upping the awareness of the scent-memory connection,” Wilson-Brown adds. It also allows you to reflect on significant times in your life and what might be important to you now.
“Try using a small notebook or a note-taking app to list the smells that you encounter throughout your day or even just part of your day,” Murphy suggests, like during your morning commute, a bike ride or run, or a round of shopping errands. “You may be surprised by what you notice … and then notice again the next time around.”
When it comes to smell, sometimes it’s fun to let the memories come to you following an experience. You can also be in charge of forging your own scent memories. “If you want to consciously create a memory in an environment,” Wilson-Brown says, “make sure you scent that environment in a consistent way.”
At home, you can light certain candles, get plug-ins, light incense, or use essential oils to support that sense memory in a safe space. At work, you can do the same. For special events like a wedding or childbirth, pick a perfume or cologne to help you remember that day. “It comes down to consciousness,” she says, “and being cognizant of your impressions.”
Murphy notes that the most important aspect to remember is to follow your own nose. “Just because some perfume or candle suddenly seems very popular with everyone on TikTok doesn’t mean you have to chase it down,” she says. The scent expert suggests exploring the work of certain scent leaders, brands, or independent perfumers, especially brand creators who craft scents inspired by their own memories, such as CB I Hate Perfume, Maya Njie Perfumes, or MCMC Fragrances. “Trust your own instincts, set your own pace, and take pleasure in your own olfactory experiences and your own scent-memory connections.”
Think beyond perfume
While your mind may go straight to perfume or certain foods for scent-inspired nostalgia, there are a number of creative ways to get your nose going. Murphy says you can also cultivate connections with scents in your life through flavored tea, incense, spices, and fragranced body products. “When you use or taste something with a distinctive aroma,” she says, “take a moment to notice how it makes you feel or what comes to mind as you experience it.”