Your sense of smell can evoke memories (and more)

Regardless of race, gender, income or ethnicity, we’ve all experienced it: While we’re going about our regular affairs, a particular smell can suddenly transport us back to another place in time. Our “odor memories” kick in. Odor memory is divided into two cognitive-perceptual processes: One being the identification of a smell an individual has experienced before, and the other being the autobiographical memories and associations that trigger an odor. 

Smell as a gateway to well-being

A review of odor-evoked memory research has concluded that the uniquely emotional nature of smell is integral to our psychological and physiological well-being. It connects us to our autobiographical stories, including our associations with others. Specifically, the research suggests that an odor that provides a positive memory recall for an individual has the potential to increase positive emotions, decrease negative moods, disrupt cravings, lower stress and decrease inflammatory immune responses.

The link between smell & overall health

This is often why researchers suggest that a person’s quality of life declines if they lose their sense of smell. The profound connection between smell and memory in the brain also serves as a marker for uncovering underlying health troubles: For example, the loss of an ability to smell has often been recognized as an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. While the region of the brain associated with smell (the anterior olfactory nucleus) is poorly understood, Jun Chul Kim, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, suggests that information regarding space and time is stored here when someone experiences an odor.

Getting present with our senses

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when a smell triggers a memory, we revisit a time when we were exceptionally present—whether it was a cozy coffee date with our partner, or a sunset swim in the ocean. Could it be that the memorability of these moments is due to their meditative quality? In a world where media of all forms are vying for our attention, the ability to be present and mindful of our surroundings is becoming increasingly difficult. How might a perpetual lack of sensory awareness flatten our memories?