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What smell brings you back in time? Here's why scents make for powerful memories


"Smells do bring back memories."

The smell of toasting bread is one of my favorite scents. If there were a Yankee candle for this smell, I would own it.

It's a smell that will forever remind me of my grandparent's home. It helps me recall the look of the dark wood cabinetry, the 1970s cream and orange flower wallpaper and the four slice toaster that emitted the glorious smell as a I opened the closed kitchen door (my grandma didn't want the banging around in there to wake those slumbering upstairs).

The smell makes me feel like it should be summer -- no matter the time of year I smell it. Like I should be excited to go to the beach later that day. Like I should be content.

Why does this smell have such an emotional effect on me though? Others have had similar experiences with their own smells, memories and the emotions associated with them.

NBC, for example, reported Howard Eichenbaum's smell being Shalimar -- a perfume he caught a whiff of when a woman entered the elevator. He said the smell "transported [him] to high school."

Eichenbaum, the director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology at Boston University, explained to NBC the parts of the brain that are activated by these olfactory triggers:

After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, which helps the brain process smells. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. As a member of the limbic system, the olfactory bulb can easily access the amygdala, which plays a role in emotional memories (it’s also where the "fight or flight" reflex comes from).

“Olfactory has a strong input into the amygdala, which process emotions. The kind of memories that it evokes are good and they are more powerful,” explains Eichenbaum.

This close relationship between the olfactory and the amygdala is one of the reason odors cause a spark of nostalgia.


“Smells do bring back memories,” says Dr. Ken Heilman, James E. Rooks Jr. Distinguished Professor Neurology and Health Psychology at the University of Florida and a member of AAN. “Smell goes into the emotional parts of the brain and the memory parts, whereas words go into thinking parts of the brain.”

What are the smells that bring you back to yesteryear? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image via Shutterstock. 

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