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A Hint of Memory

Smells spark powerful and deeply rooted connections to the past.

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Every so often, the smell of apple pie, fresh flowers, or an ocean breeze jolts us back to childhood. These scents are just a few that can give us an emotional boost by evoking nostalgia, according to recent research reported in the journal Memory .

A group of students in the United States sampled a variety of "pleasant and neutral" fragrances and rated the degree to which they experienced nostalgia and other feelings as a result. Scents that were considered more arousing and familiar were more likely to elicit nostalgic feelings. (At the top of the pack were pumpkin pie spice, Chanel No. 5, and lavender flowers.) The strength of the nostalgia, in turn, predicted participants' ratings of their emotional responses, including how happy the scents made them and how much they felt that life was meaningful and purposeful. Though nostalgia can stir both positive and negative feelings, the scents tended to produce more positive ones.

"It's a relatively simple thing to elicit," says lead study author Chelsea Reid, a psychologist at the College of Charleston. Though further investigation is needed, people who are feeling down or lonely might benefit from seeking out scents (or reproductions of scents) that conjure fond memories. "When you're going through a rough time," Reid says, "maybe you can utilize this as a tool to help yourself out."

This takes me (farther) back

Source: Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 2015

In studies of older adults, scent-triggered memories most commonly dated back to the first decade and evoked strong feelings of being "brought back." The deep odor-memory link may stem in part from connections between the brain's olfactory bulb and memory-related areas, including the hippocampus.