Scent memory

Hello again. My last post was about dinosaurs and amino acids. You can find it here: Today’s post is going to look at another biological something still within us, but something mostly ignored amongst its 4 other sisters.

Do you remember the smell of a pile of warm, freshly laundered clothes on the bed? Imagine burrowing your nose onto the soft white fluffy towels and breathe in the fresh scent of soap and floral undertones of fabric softener.

Let the smell hold you. Allow your memory to guide you to a different place. Relish in the imagined colours and textures of your dreamscape. Let yourself indulge in your place because nobody else’s is like yours. It’s just you and your memories.

The link between your nose and the brain is not a trifle thing. With gentle nudges, your nose has taught you the pleasure of coffee with just the right mixture of coffee beans and milk, the exact perfume which makes your heart soar every time you whiff at it and that particular spot in your grandmother’s house which reminds you of her. It has also taught you to plug your nose when walking past garbage trucks and to throw away soured milk left out overnight.

Yet, each smell is more than a mixture of particles; each scent is a moment lived. The way you intepret a smell will tell a story vastly different from your friend’s.

Fruity odours may bring you back to carefree childhoods spent frolicking in playgrounds, or in my case, of a popular grape-scented toothpaste of my time which I chewed more than I brushed. A trail of cologne from a passing stranger may bring with it a rush of memories making your throat tighten and burn.

Why is this? One reason for the strong link between olfaction (the sense of smell) and memory emotionality may be due to the anatomy of the brain. The olfactory bulb is linked to the amygdala and the hippocampus of the brain – regions which are associated with emotional experience and memory.

What this means is that scents can induce powerful moments of nostalgia. A research paper has named this scent-evoked nostalgia, on par with moments of nostalgia from hearing song lyrics and viewing imagery. Additionally, scent-evoked nostalgia was also characterized to more positive emotions as compared to the other forms.

Even literature mentions this in the form called the ‘Proust phenomenon’. A famous French writer spent years trying to pinpoint why a particular smell of tea-soaked biscuit moved him.

“And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place… I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.”

– In search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

It was in actuality a childhood memory of his invalid aunt Leonie who gave him a madeline cake dipped in tea. Few people have the ability to write of a feeling so beautifully, and I personally feel that literature pushes research forward by inspiration.

So next time, when a passing scent holds you for a moment, stop to wonder where you have last smelt that scent before. These are life’s little pleasures.

What are your thoughts?

A silly question a day keeps life interesting,


P.S. A la recherche du temps perdu might be a hard read, but you definitely won’t regret it.


Chu, S. (2000). Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Chemical Senses,25(1), 111-116. doi:10.1093/chemse/25.1.111

Proust, M., & Carter, W. C. (2013). In Search of Lost Time. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reid, C. A., Green, J. D., Wildschut, T., & Sedikides, C. (2013). Scent-evoked nostalgia. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e512142015-003



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