The Science of Smells and Memory

In this week’s blog post, psychology graduate, Maria, explains the science behind smells that help us recall vivid memories.

We probably don’t analyse why we see the world around us, feel, touch or smell a wide range of scents…but all of these senses require a complex system of brain areas. Our sense of smell in particular has an amazing ability to ‘mentally transport’ us back to previous emotions or memories –  but why does this happen? How does this happen?

Psychological and neurobiological research has shown that when we sense an incoming smell, it is processed through many brain areas that are directly connected to emotion and memory brain centres. The olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs alongside the bottom of the brain, has strong connections with our amygdala (an emotion centre of the brain) and hippocampus (helps in memory). Interestingly, our visual, sound and touch information don’t pass through these areas, explaining why olfaction (smell) can so successfully trigger emotions and memories. Although we tend to rely heavily on vision, our sense of smell can be a very powerful tool in day-to-day life!

This association between smells and remembering can also have valuable implications for revision and learning information.  Psychology researchers have found that smells can be associated with facts or information, to allow for better recall in the future. In principle, we may be able to train our brain to remember information using scent, maybe by using different scents for different concepts. Give it a go and put those candles to good use!

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