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Scents and Emotions: How Our Sense of Smell Affects Our Memories - Blog

Scents and Emotions: How Our Sense of Smell Affects Our Memories

When is the last time you time-travelled because of scent? That sudden jump to another time and place sparked by the fleeting fragrance of a loved one or the smell of a familiar location is an experience most people have had. Even though you may not have been conscious of them lurking deep in the primal parts of your mind, scent memories hide there, ready to pull us back into the exact moment when that memory was created.

Smell the perfume your grandmother wore and you are right there, in her embrace. A chance encounter with the smell of the sun tan lotion from your teenage escapades on holiday might suddenly make you feel like you have a crush on that life guard all over again. And since taste, aroma and smell are so interlinked, getting a waft of a familiar dish can whisk you back to a very specific moment in time and fill you with the emotions you felt then.

Why does this happen?

The unique mechanism of fragrance and memory

We can think of it as a kind of emotional alchemy - this instantaneous transition from scent to re-lived memory - and there's a very particular reason those smells are ringing bells. Our nose is just a funnel, and the sense of smell is really a complex system, parts of which sit right next to where our memories and emotions are stored in the brain.

More than that, unlike our senses of sight, sound and touch, our sense of smell does not pass through the analytical, more highly-developed part of our brain first – it bypasses the frontal cortex and heads straight to the earliest, most primitive part of our brain. You get an emotional, ‘gut reaction’ first, before the smell is processed consciously.

So, while our other senses are just as capable of producing strong associations and triggering memories, smell really is unique.

The slightest whiff of something familiar and we can be carried away to something more than merely a memory. Instantly evoked, it can feel as though we're actually living through the emotion; that the person remembered is right there in the room with us, or that we're standing in the special place we've recalled.

Scents and emotion

That time-travelling sensation is partly to do with the way our brains are wired, but it’s also the unique associations we make with scents and the way they make us feel. You may not realise it, but you have an emotional filing system linked to everything you smell and the emotions that result from that, which you’re accessing and adding to all the time. The way many perfumers learn to ‘fix’ several thousand fragrance ingredients in their minds is by directly pinning them to an image, sensation, colour or combination of evocative words that build an emotional bridge from the abstract smell to something personal, memorable, unique.

Whenever you first encountered a new scent, your brain was busy linking it to a moment in time, comparing it, judging it, filing it away for future use. No wonder that smell can be such a highly personal preference, but there are some scents that seem to produce almost universally happy associations. Freshly cut grass and baking bread are two of the most frequently mentioned "favourite smells", perhaps because they remind us of carefree childhood days when summer seemed endless and of comforting; of homely pleasures.

Such links are sometimes known as "Proustian", recalling the French writer Marcel Proust, who was directly inspired to write his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, by the provocative memories that flowed after experiencing the aroma of a madeleine cake soaked in tea.

Literature, poetry and paintings rely endlessly on the protagonists being transported to a particular emotion through their sense of smell - think how many artists paint a lady bending to tenderly cup a flower in their hand and inhale - and we’re right there with them at that moment. The mere description or visual representation of a scent and we’re even more deeply connected to the piece. 'There’s rosemary, that's for remembrance...' so Shakespeare had Ophelia say in Hamlet, and recent studies appear to show the aromatic herb could, indeed, enhance memory, with pensioners in a room diffused with rosemary apparently boosting their memory test scores by 15 per cent. Perhaps we should be packing students off to University with rosemary-scented goodies, just in case?

Create your own memories in scent

Though you may not be inspired to write an entire novel with every memorable sniff, it's encouraging to know that uplifting our mood or conjuring cosiness may be performed by selecting happy memory-provoking scents to have around us and fill our homes with. Useful, too, when wishing to create new memories and happy associations – you can deliberately create a happy scent memory by choosing a unique scent for a wedding, forthcoming party or any other special occasion. Choose a special perfume to wear that you’ve never worn before, or mark a celebration with a matching candle – and every time you want to re-live the happy moments, just re-visiting the scent will take you back.

At Parks, our luxury candles blend beautiful fragrances with innovative technology, helping to infuse your home with wonderful scent. To create your own scented memories, browse our complete range of 100% natural wax candles, visit the homepage.