The powerful connection between scents and memories
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.” - Helen Keller
When trying to decide what angle we wanted to take for our summer incense, our minds naturally drifted to the tried-and-true seaside smells that are frequently associated with beach season. But the more we discussed our approach, the more we realized that journey wasn’t truly authentic to us. We are grassy girls who grew up playing among farmers’ fields and wandering cool forested nooks. Scents like woodsy Cypress, fresh Sweetgrass, and earthy Vertiver speak to us more, better capturing the scent profile of long, warm grass on a hot summer’s day.
But what is it about scent that is so strongly tied to memories? Why do grassy scents sweep us away with fond nostalgia, while more beachy scents – although absolutely delightful – don’t hit us in the same wistful way?
While exploring this powerful connection in the aptly-titled scientific article, Here’s Why Smells Trigger Such Vivid Memories by Ashley Hamer, we discovered that unlike touch, taste, sight or sound – scent bypasses the thalamus, the area of the brain that redirects information from our other senses to the relevant parts of our minds. Instead, when we smell something familiar, that recognizable odor makes an aromatic b-line to the olfactory bulb, our brain’s specialized scent centre. The olfactory bulb has a direct connection to our hippocampus, which is responsible for holding our memories, and amygdala, which handles our emotional processing. It’s no wonder then that smell can be such a powerful emotional trigger.
Studies also indicate that the tight connection between our smell centre and memory centre is tied to higher-level structures in our brain that archives our long-term memories. That is why one sniff can propel you way back in time and space with a more profound impact than any other sense. Sure, we can see a photo and go back in time, perhaps recalling the events of the day as we vaguely remember them, but when we smell something, we are completely transported. We are there. That’s why as long-time city dwellers, a fresh, grassy scent can immediately take us away on a momentary vacation back to a simpler time. We hope that you will resonate with this sentimental smell too.
What is your summer scent? We’d love to know!