Why is smell so strongly tied to our memories? Kim describes the reason for this scientific phenomenon while also sharing some recent memories of her own that were activated just by the smell of something nearby. Kim also explains how scent can also be a form of relaxation and how it can reduce stress!
Reminiscing with Your Sense of Smell
By: Kim Openo, LAPC, NCC
Dr. Ronald Riggio, psychologist and professor at Claremont McKenna College, discusses the connection between smells and childhood memories. Why is it that certain smells trigger certain memories, even from an early age? It is part of our evolutionary survival skills. Think about it…you know when you smell expired milk you should not put it on your Cheerios at breakfast. Have you ever taken a deliberate sniff your sweetie’s tee shirt to comfort you when he is out of town. A scent of a loved one makes a person feel safe and reassured. This is because the amygdala (the brain’s emotion center) & the hippocampus (a place that helps store memories) is located close to the brain’s olfactory bulb (Riggio, 2012).
During a recent snowstorm in Atlanta, my husband and I watched the fat snowflakes come down in the light of our front porch light drinking a mug of hot cocoa with obligatory mini-marshmallows. The smell of the hot chocolate made me think back to time when Atlanta had an ice storm followed by snow. I was in fifth grade, and school was cancelled for a week. I would come in day after day playing in the snow all wet, cold, and tired. I’d come inside to wrap up in a blanket that my mom would have warm from the dryer for me and bring me a mug of cocoa with extra marshmallows. She and I would sit by the fire as I told her about all the fun I’d had in the snow. I felt so happy and loved during those moments and the smell of hot cocoa takes me right back to that moment of complete contentment of being loved.
Using a scent for relaxation is a terrific way to reduce stress as well. A colleague of mine when I worked in a laboratory where we were always under grant deadlines kept a vanilla-jasmine essential oil in her desk to sniff when she was particularly stressed or under pressure. She used this same scent in her nightly bath and had a candle in her bedroom that she lit before going to sleep to make her feel relaxed and stress-free for falling asleep. Using the example of my wintertime memory from above, perhaps smelling a piece of chocolate or having a cup of cocoa might make me feel relaxed since I have such a positive memory attached to it.
What is a smell that takes you back to a time when you feel comforted or relaxed? When you are feeling stressed, or even when you are not, recall a positive memory with a scent.
Reference: Riggio, R.E. (2012). Why certain smells trigger positive memories. Psychology Today retrieved at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201205/why-certain-smells-trigger-positive-memories.