THE NOSE KNOWS NOSTALGIA: HOW SCENT TRIGGERS MEMORY

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Ever had a scent to stop you dead in your tracks and lead you down a flashing reel of vivid childhood memories? Maybe it was the scent of salty air that reminded you of summer stays at the beach or the smell of sugar cookies that created an instant image of you devouring what was left in the batter bowl. Whatever the case, the nose knows nostalgia.

Our nose plays an important role in capturing and recalling memories based on scent. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as odor-evoked autobiographical memory. Here’s how it works.

Smell begins in the back our nose. Once a scent is detected, it travels to the smell-analyzing region of our brain. From there, the message is sent to another area of our brain that handles memory, emotion and associative learning. It is here where the scent is interpreted as a smell you may recognize. In other words, the smell becomes associated with a person, place, thing or event. This is why when someone describes a smell, the description usually includes an event associated with the scent (e.g. loved one, childhood home, arrival of autumn, etc.).

Although other senses like taste, sight, touch and sound can trigger our memory. They do not travel the same pathway as smell. With these senses, once a message is received, it travels to a relay center that is responsible for sending the message to other areas of our brain for processing. With smell, everything is processed and controlled in a concentrated area; mind you, one directly connected to smell, memory and emotion.

What smells evoke some of your favorite nostalgic moments? Please comment below.

Quick fact: Smell is the oldest sense. Before sight, hearing and touch, living organisms evolved to respond to their environment through smell.


 

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