Smells can trigger memories instantly - we've all experienced this.
When visiting your parents' house, the smell of a specific item or toy can take you back to that very moment in your childhood when you used to play with it - suddenly, you can remember all the details vividly!
Whether it's the smell of old books that remind you of your mom's bedtime stories, or the smell of a certain dish your grandma used to cook: smell trigger memories like no other of our senses.
This is called odor-evoked autobiographical memory: a certain smell can bring back detailed memories from the past, specifically from your childhood years.
Of course music, textures, tastes or visual clues can also trigger memories, but not quite like smells.
Why? How is our sense of smell different and why does it seem to be so connected with childhood memories?!
How we process smells
From our 5 senses vision, touch, taste, hearing and smell, smell is the only one which is managed differently by our brain.
All other senses are processed by our Thalamus, a brain region which then forwards the signal to the appropriate processing sensors.
But once a smell is detected by the receptors inside your nose, the signal directly travels to the so-called "olfactory bulb", which is the reason of our brain that analyzes smells.
It's conveniently located above our nasal cavities.
This olfactory bulb is connected to our Hippocampus and our Amygdala: these are the parts of our brain that processes memories and emotions!
Then WHY is our sense of smell so special?
Our sense of smell is actually much more important than most people think.
Smell is our oldest and most rudimentary sense, it has the longest evolutionary history since its roots can be found even in single-celled organisms.
This also explains why we can distinguish over 10,000 different smells (we just don't have names for all of them) and have 1,000 different types of smell receptors in our nose. In comparison, there are only four types of light sensors in our eyes and about 4 types of receptors for touch on our skin.
Smells and emotional memories
So there is a direct link between our sense of smell and our memories, which is not given with any other senses.
But smells don't just bring back any kind of memories - they are mostly from our childhood, before we were 10 years old.
And they are almost always connected with an emotional feeling - when smelling your grandma's dish, you might remember how you and your siblings used to play around grandma's house afterwards, or how you used to goof around at the table.
The memories are more perceptual rather than conceptual:
Smells trigger memories in combination with feelings, not facts.
So although certain smells might be an excellent way to bring back childhood memories, they probably won't help you memorize something for an exam.
Now that we know the theory and the biological process behind it, let's look at some experiments that have actually proven the connection between smells and memories.
4 years ago, a study from European psychologists conducted a study where they used fMRI brain scans to analyze this phenomenon.
The participants were presented with 20 different, specific scents like whiskey or garlic.
Then they identified the two smells which triggered the oldest positive emotion for each test subject.
Next was the brain scanning: The participants were now presented with their 2 individual smells, as well as the smells of flowers and citrus for control purposes.
They were also shown the names of the smells projected on to a screen as a verbal/visual cue.
Results: both types of triggers (vision and smell) activated parts of the brain associated with memories. But there was one key difference.
The verbal cues activated brain areas responsible for processing smells.
But when the subjects were exposed to the smells themselves, areas of our brain that process EMOTIONS were activated as well!
So in conclusion:
Smells are processed differently than any other sense, they are directly linked to the memory center of the brain. Certain smells can take us back to our childhood and are strongly connected to emotional memories!
What are some of your favorite smells that trigger certain childhood memories?
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