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Smell and Memory

Smell and Memory

If you’ve done much of anything with aromatherapy, you’ve probably found yourself having some interesting experiences with the various oils and scents you’ve used. Maybe certain scents have brought back memories that you haven’t thought about in years. Have you ever given much thought as to why that happens though? As it turns out, there’s a close link between smells and memory.

The Science of Smell

To begin to understand the link between smell and memory, it helps to first understand the basics of how smell works. The reason you can smell things starts with the odor molecules that just about everything gives off. When you inhale, these molecules get sucked into your nose where they dissolve in the olfactory epithelium, a mucus membrane, where they bind to receptor cells. These receptor cells then generate signals that are transmitted along sensory neurons until they get to the olfactory bulb in your brain. The olfactory bulb then processes the signal and then passes the information along to other parts of your brain.

The Impact of Anatomy

So how does this impact memory? The answer has to do with the structures in the brain that are in close proximity to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is a part of the limbic system. This system is involved in a lot of behavioral responses, including emotion and memory. The hippocampus plays a major role in learning and memory, while the amygdala helps regulate emotions and encode memories. These structures are both part of the limbic system, along with the olfactory bulb. They are also in close proximity to one another. Because of this, the signals created because of the odor molecules you inhale quickly make their way to the hippocampus, amygdala, and on to other structures in the limbic system. The connections between these structures all lead to smell having the potential to have a powerful impact in the formation of memories.

Improve Your Sense of Smell

Did you know that you may be able to improve your sense of smell? The way to do it is quite simple – you practice. Pay attention to the smells around you. Be deliberate about it. Try to identify them when you can. The more you use your nose, the stronger it will get. This can also be a great way to practice being present in the moment.

You don’t have to limit your smelling practice to just those experiences you have throughout the day though. You can be deliberate in your practice as well. Try choosing a scent and try to pick it out throughout the day. Similarly, take a good strong sniff of a scent you like to stimulate your olfactory nerves. Our favorite scent training set includes Eucalyptus, Lemon, Rose, and Clove.

Your diet can also have an impact on your sense of smell. If you have a zinc or vitamin B12 deficiency, your sense of smell could be impaired. Try bolstering your sense of smell by first making sure you have sufficient intakes. Oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, crab, lobster, whole grains, and dairy products can be good sources of zinc. And you can get more B12 from beef, chicken, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs.

If you’ve ever smelled a scent that called you back to memories of years long gone, you’ve experienced the powerful link between smell and memory. Whether it’s a whiff of Clove or Peppermint that takes you back to Christmas at Grandma’s, or the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and milk that harken back to after school snacks, there are smells like that for everyone. Enjoy the memories brought back by some of your favorite scents and create new memories with new scents. And remember, the more senses you get involved when making memories, the stronger the memory will be.