The Science of Smell: What Does Your Nose Remember? – LA JOLIE MUSE

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The Science of Smell: What Does Your Nose Remember?

  • Posted by La Jolie Muse  

The Power Of Your Nose

woman smelling white flower smiling

Have you ever smelled something that triggered a rush of childhood memories? When the smell of something instantly triggers vivid memories, you’re experiencing a phenomenon called the Proust effect.   

Like the soft, sweet, almost fluffy scent of a classic birthday cake. (Rainbow sprinkles included.)

The scent of vanilla. The smell of just extinguished candles, the trails of dissipating smoke…

vanilla candle on its side with honey, butter, milk, fruit, and almonds

Surprisingly, what we think of as flavor isn’t just what lands on our tongue, but also  what we smell. As you chew and let your favorite flavors linger on your tongue, your nose is doing a huge amount of work to help create the sense we all know as taste. 

And guess which sense is most closely linked to memory? Smell. It’s the first sense you use when you’re born. And it’s breathtakingly powerful—humans can distinguish one trillion smells

How Smell Works

woman in pink tank top smelling pink and yellow flower

You might have heard of the term olfactory pyramid, a common word in the perfume world. How do we define olfactory? Basically, it’s your sense of smell.

It’s easy to assume that it’s your nose and tongue doing the work, but ultimately the brain, sensory organs, and the nervous system are responsible for your sense of smell. 

Smell is so important to us that we have a dedicated part of the brain called the olfactory cortex (which is part of your cerebral cortex) that handles smell!

When you smell something, the olfactory neurons at the upper part of your nose send an impulse that passes along the olfactory nerve to your olfactory bulb, your brain’s smell center.

The olfactory bulb’s location is part of the reason why scents are so strongly tied to memory — it sits at the front part of the brain and is directly connected to the amygdala (which is the memory part of the brain that’s also responsible for emotion and our fight or flight responses) and the hippocampus. 

This entire system is known as the limbic system. The limbic system is a set of structures in your brain that play a major role in controlling your emotions, memories, behavior, and mood.

“Hacking” Your Sense Of Smell For Relaxation

Brown candle on bath tray with towel, matches, and pinecone

No, we’re not talking about gaining smell superpowers (we wish!). We’re talking about how to use your already excellent smell sensitivity for enhanced relaxation — to use it with purpose and as a tool to positively affect your mental health.  

First, it’s important to know that memories associated with smell aren’t necessarily more accurate — but they do tend to evoke more meaning. This is especially true for memories of specific events from a first-person point of view.

When it comes to using your sense of smell for emotional recall and relaxation, a surprisingly good place to look is in acting class.

The Power Of Sense Memory

woman holding clapperboard in front of her face

You’ve probably heard of method acting, but have you heard of sense memory?  

Sense memory is an acting technique that involves recalling emotional events using the five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch—to evoke a reaction on cue. It’s not remembering but reliving. The source is imaginary, but the emotion is real.

We don’t need to go to the same extremes as actors to tap into sensory memory examples and inspire appropriate reactions. But can we create memory associations to inspire relaxation?

Learn How To Relax Anywhere, Every Day

Damask rose candle on bedside table with a vase of roses

According to Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., MPH who works as a psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center, associate memory can work for all the senses, not just smell. So if you find burning a rose scented candle during a bath relaxing, you’ll soon associate the smell of roses with relaxation. There’s no evidence to show that this effect is limited to specific scents, so choose whichever fragrance families you like and enjoy.

A New Memory Technique?

Right arm of a person studying at a desk

Relaxation aside, did you know you can use smells to boost learning when you sleep? A recent study showed that when we smell an aroma while learning new knowledge and sleep next to a source of the same aroma, recalling the information later on is easier. Exciting news for scent lovers studying for exams in need of a new memory technique!

Did You Know? A Note on Nose Blindness

Woman smelling leaves in her hand

Before you dive into a world of stunning scents for your home, you should know about nose blindness.

Have you ever walked into a friend’s house and noticed that their house has a distinctive smell? Your friend probably doesn’t notice because they’re used to it — that’s nose blindness. It’s a natural adaptation we all do but don’t worry, it’s temporary! 

Nose blindness often occurs in areas where we spend a lot of time, which is why we often don’t notice our own household odors. This isn’t a bad thing—if our brains didn’t filter all that smell data, we’d be overstimulated and wouldn’t be able to smell when our toast is burnt!

Nose blindness does seem to occur faster when there are unpleasant smells, but that doesn’t mean there’s a secret odor you can’t detect lurking in your house. 

There are three easy ways to “cure” nose blindness:

Go Outside

Simply put, leave your house. You only need to leave your house for a few minutes and then return to be able to detect odors at home.

Get Moving

Science isn’t sure why breaking into a sweat might help, but studies have found that older adults who exercise frequently have a lower risk of developing smell impairment

Think about it

Probably the easiest and fastest way to cure nose blindness is to be aware of it. When you make a conscious effort to think about something, your brain automatically focuses.

Of course, the best way to eliminate any potential odors is to declutter and make sure key areas of your home are clean. That includes taking out the garbage, cleaning bathroom and kitchen drains, making sure your fridge is clean, and even just opening a window.

Once that’s all done and dusted, you’ll have peace of mind and can sink into a plethora of mood-boosting, beautiful scents.


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