Why Is Smell Linked to Memory?

Many believe that smell has a more vital link to emotional memory than any of our other senses (sight, sound, touch, and taste). And it’s not difficult to understand why. The smell of freshly cut grass, the scent of sunscreen on the wind, the mouth-watering aromas of a busy kitchen…. Specific smells conjure specific, powerful memories, like a wave of nostalgia crashing over the mind.

For decades, neuroscientists have studied the role our senses play in both creating and recalling life-long memories. Our other senses translate sensory information and route it through a part of our brain called the thalamus. That’s where this information is filtered and sorted before traveling to the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing: the hippocampus and the amygdala.

But our sense of smell is entirely unique.

Scents completely ignore the thalamus and cruise right to the olfactory bulb, sending signals directly to the limbic system (more on this below) with incredible speed. Here’s a quick but fascinating look at the psychology of smell and why smell is so powerfully linked to memory.

The Limbic System and Its Influence on Emotional Memory

Why do certain smells instantly evoke specific memories or feelings? It’s all thanks to the limbic system, the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses. This fascinating bit of neuroscience also reminds us to eat and tells us to run when danger is close. In other words, it’s essential to our survival.

The limbic system is buried deep beneath the cerebral cortex and consists of three primary structures:

The Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus, one of the busiest parts of the brain, is small and located just below the thalamus on both sides of the third ventricle. Its primary function is maintaining a state of homeostasis — which is really just a fancy word for neutrality — and regulating hunger, thirst, anger, blood pressure, and breathing, all in response to emotional circumstances.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is small and curved and responsible for the formation, organization, and storage of new memories, as well as connecting certain sensations and emotions to these memories. When we sleep, the hippocampus sorts through our memories and ships the most powerful to be stored in long-term memory. This helps keep our minds clear and free of clutter.

Here’s a fun fact: Because our brains are symmetrical, we actually have two hippocampi, located just above each ear.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is a pair of small almond-shaped regions deep in the brain. The amygdala triggers our “fight or flight” response, helps keep our emotions in check, and encodes memories.

Other research suggests that the amygdala also places value on the objects and people in our environment, translates whether their value is positive or negative, and responds to those considered essential stimuli.

Together, these individual parts of our brain make up a much larger whole — a whole that acts as an emotional memory machine that can be easily triggered by the scents we encounter.

We put great care into making sure our residents enjoy an array of pleasing scents at The Moments, starting with our clean and comfortable highly purified air and ventilation system. Against that fresh and soothing backdrop, our residents are frequently treated to the scents of freshly baked cookies and delicious meals being prepared in the kitchen, and — in warmer months — the scents of sunshine-warmed soil and blossoming flowers in our outdoor spaces.

Learn more about why smell is linked to memory and explore the role scent plays in the routines of our residents.

Published On: July 25, 2022