Why do certain smells spark memories?

Sparking memories

How many times has a memory came flooding back to you after experiencing a specific aroma?  For example, the smell of fresh cut grass takes me back to hearing my dad mowing the yard.  Or better Why do certain smells spark memoriesyet, the smell of freshly baked cookies puts a smile on my face at the thought of having this surprise waiting for me after a long day at school.  Whatever the scent may be, everyone has certain triggers that evoke memories.

The journey of smell

Think of it like this – as you receive a smell through your nose, nerve cells housed in your olfactory receptor cells send a cue to your olfactory bulb (originates in the nose and travels alongside the base of the brain). In turn, your olfactory bulb is directly linked to the two parts of the brain associated with emotion (the amygdala) and memory and cognition (hippocampus). Why-do-certain-smells-spark-memories Therefore, this cue is assessed by the olfactory bulb (“the smell-analyzing region in your brain”) and decoded as a certain smell.  It is then relayed to your limbic system (the emotional handler in the brain) and stored in your ‘brain vault.’

The other four senses

Although, the other four senses (sight, sound, taste, and touch) can also Why do certain smells spark memories?provoke memories, they do not have a straight-shot to the brain like smell does.  Instead, the stimuli coming from these other senses is directed towards the thymus (“the part of your brain that sends off to the appropriate processing sensors”) Why Sense of Smells Can Trigger Strong Memories. (2015).   As a result, the other four senses’ journey to the areas in the brain in charge of emotion and memory is much more involved.


“In 2013, a group of European psychologists tested this whole phenomenon using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.  First, they presented subjects with 20 different strong, specific odors like garlic, whiskey, and leather then, for each person, they identified the two that elicited the oldest positive memories.  Presented with their 2 experimental smells plus 2 generic controlled smells (flowers and citrus).  They were also shown some verbal cues which were the names of the smells projected onto a screen. As a result, the researchers found that both types of triggers tended to activate the regions of the brain associated with memory.  But while the verbal cues lit up parts of the brain responsible for processing smells, the smells themselves were more strongly connected to emotional processing centers.” (Why Sense of Smells Can Trigger Strong Memories. (2015).


Did you know that the area in the human brain responsible for deciphering approximately 10,000 varying odors is as big as a cheez-it cracker? Better yet, did you know that after the passing of one year, people were 65% more likely to be able to recall past odors?  Whereas, after only three months, the likelihood of remembering past images was only at 50%.

Frankly, what makes something ‘stick’ in our minds is whether we’ve made an emotional connection to it.  Furthermore, your sense of smell (unlike sight, sound, and taste) responds first favorably or unfavorably to the odor and then determines exactly what the smell is.

In fact, “so many of these odor-driven memories may further be childhood memories because those years are when we experience most smells for the first time.” (Stierwalt, PhD, S. (2018).  In addition, these childhood memories are most likely from post-adolescence even though our first experiences with smell begin as early as in the womb.

Conditioned responses

Although, there is direct circuitry with the olfactory bulb, the amygdala, andWhy do certain smells spark memories the hippocampus, smells alone can not ‘drum up’ memories without learned reactions.  In other words, your first experience with a smell generates an association with a person, place, thing, or moment in time.  Following this first encounter, your brain bonds the smell to a specific memory.  Therefore, every time you experience that smell, the deep-rooted bond returns in the form of a memory of that person, place, thing, or moment in time.


So there you have some thoughts on why certain smells spark memories.  Coincidentally, many real estate agents bring freshly baked apple pies to their open houses for this exact reason.  Their intent is to transport you to a memory of family togetherness and a homey environment.  With that being said, let your sense of smell lead you to living a healthier, happier life!  With that being said, here’s to living your best life ever!  Feel free to leave me a comment or any insight you may have on the topic of how certain smells spark memories.

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Businesswire.com. (2013). Take a Whiff: Cintas Highlights 10 Fun Facts about Sense of Smell. [online] Available at: https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130425006586/en/Whiff-Cintas-Highlights-10-Fun-Facts-Sense [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].

Dowdey, S. (2018). How Smell Works. [online] HowStuffWorks. Available at: https://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/perception/smell.htm [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].

Exploring your mind. (2016). The Memories Evoked by Our Five Senses – Exploring your mind. [online] Available at: https://exploringyourmind.com/memories-evoked-five-senses/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].

Lewis, Ph.D., J. (2015). Smells Ring Bells: How Smell Triggers Memories and Emotions. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201501/smells-ring-bells-how-smell-triggers-memories-and-emotions [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].

Stierwalt, PhD, S. (2018). Why Do Smells Trigger Memories?. [online] Quick and Dirty Tips. Available at: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/science/why-do-smells-trigger-memories? [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].

Why Sense of Smells Can Trigger Strong Memories. (2015). Why Smells Can Trigger Strong Memories. [online] Available at: https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/08/06/smells-trigger-memories.aspx [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].


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