The Emotional Power of Smell

If sense of smell can be linked to emotional memory, can it also be connected to emotional disorders?

By Melanie LeTourneau, published on September 1, 2000 - last reviewed on February 11, 2008

For many of us, it's as plain as the nose on our faces—different
smells conjure up specific memories. But what is it exactly that makes us
connect the smell of barbecues with summer?

Odors are very powerful emotional stimuli, explains Bruce Turetsky, a University of Pennsylvania associate psychiatry professor. In
fact, he says, different scents may "have a greater ability to bring up
an emotional memory in you than seeing a picture or hearing a voice." So
if sense of smell can be linked to emotional memory, can it also be
connected to emotional disorders?

It's possible, according to Turetsky. In one study, he
measured the size of olfactory bulbs—organs that transport odors to the
brain—in 26 patients with schizophrenia, a disease characterized by
emotional flatness. On average, the bulb sizes of schizophrenic subjects
were 23 percent smaller than those of subjects in a control group. These
findings not only concentrate on an area of the brain previously ignored
in schizophrenia studies, but, according to Turetsky, they also offer a
biological basis to his earlier findings that people suffering from the
disease were abnormal in their ability to smell.

"We think that the schizophrenic brain's core problem is that
something has gone wrong as the brain is developing," says Turetsky. And
because olfactory bulbs continually develop throughout our lives, they
"allow us to look at an area of the brain in which those processes might
still be taking place."