Understanding Sense Memory: How Our Sense of Smell Helps Us Remember

Understanding Sense Memory

What does that distinctive new book smell conjure in your mind? Or perhaps the wafting sweet scent of your partner’s favorite perfume? It’s likely these familiar fragrances transport you to a likely fond place somewhere deep in your sense memory.

And that’s not at all surprising to neuroscientists today. Scent and recall are closely linked due to the brain’s unique anatomy. For almost every human being, exposure to certain odors will generate a vivid, nostalgic emotional response–sometimes extending far back into their earliest childhood years.

Are you keen to understand more about why these two human experiences seem so inextricably linked? You must know the english language to meet the standards of communication.

What Does Proust Have to Do With It?

Strangely, it was a piece of literature that first got psychologists interested in the idea of sense memory.

Near the start of Swann’s Way, a novel written in 1913 by French author Marcel Proust, there are a few inspiring lines of text. Proust describes how not the sight but the taste and smell of a simple madeleine cake dunked into a cup of tea. It transports him back to the Sunday mornings of his childhood when his Aunt Leonie would prepare him the sweet dessert as a treat.

There’s even a famous French expression borne of the prose: a madeleine de Proust. French speakers use it to describe any sound, taste, odor, or touch that conjures memories of a time long past.

In English, the phrase used by researchers and scientists alike is the “Proust phenomenon” or Proust Effect.” This iconic little allegory inspired endless psychological studies investigating how and why smell triggers people to relieve very early autobiographical experiences. Clues spoken and seen don’t have nearly as much power as scent: they can typically only take us back to our teen years at the youngest.

Why would humans develop this extraordinary ability? That’s what psychologists and neurologists have been busy working out over the past few decades.

Understanding Sense of Smell and Memory

Most people today rely far more on their sense of sight or even hearing than smell. So why does the whiff of something familiar trigger such an emotional or nostalgic response? It’s likely down to the construction of our heads.

How Smell Works

In 2004, researchers Richard Axel and Linda Buck took home the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for decoding what was going on in our brains when we smelled something familiar.

When an odor hits our olfactory receptors, the neurons send a signal to a part of our brains called the olfactory bulb. Over a thousand different genes play a role in coding all the olfactory receptors in the human nose. And the olfactory bulb processes these smells, passing information onto the brain about what that particular scent might mean.

The olfactory bulb extends from your nose to the bottom of your brain. It connects directly to the amygdala–responsible for processing emotions–and the hippocampus–the area designated for memory and cognition.

What This Means for Memories

This close relation between these particular parts of our brain and the olfactory bulb may explain why our brain turns smell into solid emotional memories.

The connection of smell and memory likely has its origins in early human evolutionary history.

In the animal kingdom, sense memory plays a vital role in survival. It defines significant life events and learning experiences, helping them escape predators, find mates, identify food, and interact with their kin.

And humans are animals, after all.

Some scientists believe that sense memory often brings up memories from early childhood because that was the first time we experienced those smells–just like a tiny wolf cub or elephant calf.

Effects of COVID-19

Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, scientists are exploring the science of sense memory with renewed vigor. One key COVID symptom is loss of smell (and taste, which is linked).

Because smells are so essential to our memory formation, they link us to family, friends, and important events in our lives. What happens to people who lose this ability?

Recent research suggests that those suffering from olfactory dysfunction (meaning they can no longer smell properly) suffer from depression more often.

Being able to smell may, it seems, be directly related to our ability to be happy.

Influence of Sense Memory in Business

Of course, like everything that has the potential to influence purchases, the power of scent has been explored in marketing for decades.

Early perfumers knew that someone who smelled nice was more attractive to the opposite sex, and they purveyed their spritzes accordingly. In the 1950s, someone invented the weird and wonderful idea of AromaRama, also known as Smell-O-Vision: movie theatres infused with odors meant to transport people into the story.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when Dr. Alan Hirsch founded his Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, that the study of scent really got underway. His famous Nike shoe store experiment, where shoppers were 85 percent more likely to purchase shoes in a fragranced over fragrance-free (and otherwise identical) store, paved the way for the influence of odors on the consumer experience.

Today, the use of how smell affects memory is ubiquitous in advertising. There’s even a name for it: sensory branding.

Fast food joints use it to get your taste buds watering before you’ve even stepped foot in the door. Scented hotel billboards trigger memories of a visit to a particular tourist region. And flight attendants wear signature scents designed to calm passengers.

It might even help you learn how to attract women or encourage you to order UberEats before you even leave the cab.

Take Care of Your Scent Super Power

Knowing that the ability to smell plays such a crucial role in sense memory, it’s essential to look after your nose. This sensitive organ can be damaged by everything from head trauma to illness. People also tend to lose their sense of smell as they age.

But don’t fret. It’s possible to exercise this strong scent and memory ability. When you’re walking down the street, try identifying odors wafting around you. The more you use your nose, the more efficient it becomes.

Are you interested in more scientific insight into how humans work? Be sure to browse the other informative articles on our website.

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