If chlorine and sunscreen take you back to the beach on a cold winter’s day, a waft of pasta to that memorable Italian holiday, then it’s no surprise that a whiff of fragrance can transport you back to a special moment in your life: a reminder of your childhood when your mum kissed you on her way out the door, those last-minute nerves before you walked down the aisle.
There’s science behind it: the powerful connection between scent and memory brings subconscious memories front and centre – keeping us connected to our past.
How scent affects the brain
When we smell something, the scent passes through the olfactory bulb in our brain, which is the region that analyses scents. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that handle both memory and emotion; the amygdala and the hippocampus.
Unlike the rest of our senses, when we smell something, the scent enters through the frontal cortex and heads straight for the most underdeveloped part of our brain. This can be attributed to why our sense of smell, unlike our other senses, is so advanced in triggering emotions and memories.
It’s so advanced, in fact, that even the slightest hints of vanilla and amber notes can transport us back to an intense or exciting memory.
How scent triggers memories and emotions
The hippocampus region of the brain is also where short-term memories turn into long-term memories. The intertwining of smell and memory storage in the hippocampus may explain why certain scents seem to get tied to vivid memories and emotions in the brain, and come flooding back when your nose is exposed to that particular trigger.
For example, the scent of ginger could evoke a memory or emotion relating to love and intimacy, due to its fizzing aphrodisiac tendencies.
Create your own memories in a scent
Despite the close-knit connection between smell and memory, the trigger of scents would not take place if it weren’t for conditioned responses, such as the act of automatically linking a scent to an event, person, thing, or even a moment.
This means that when you encounter a certain smell again, the link will already be there, provoking a certain memory or emotion. “Since my sister moved overseas, I am triggered by the scent of ginger, as it’s her favourite,” says Kate, 24. “When we lived together we used to chat for hours in her room and she’d always have a ginger and vanilla-scented candle burning.”
Likewise, the smell of roses and orange blossom reminds Lucy, 28 of her wedding bouquet and all the wonderful memories from that day. “I love the smell so much I’ve bottled it, and every day wear my favourite bouquet-scented perfume.”