You encounter a particular smell, and it immediately transports you back to an earlier time and to a pleasant memory. I had that experience the other day when walking along the beach. In fact, I had two nearly simultaneous memories from two different smells. The first was the smell of burning wood, which took me back to childhood camping trips. That was followed by the smell of lighter fluid igniting charcoal, and a flood of memories of past barbeque parties ensued. Why is the connection between smells and memories so strong?
A recent feature in the Association of Psychological Sciences’ Observer discusses the connection. Researchers have discovered that there is a strong connection between smells, emotions and early life experiences. In fact, there is a strong relationship between certain smells experienced very early in life, typically before age 5, that will trigger pleasant feelings and memories. This is particularly true for odors that we don’t smell every day, such as my experience with the campfire and barbeque.
The reason for these associations is that the brain’s olfactory bulb is connected to both the amygdala (an emotion center) and to the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. And, because smells serve a survival function (odors can keep us from eating spoiled or poisonous foods), some of these associations are made very quickly, and may even involve a one-time association.