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Why does smell trigger memory?


Ever wondered why smell trigger memory? Many of us are anchored in certain smells, and it immediately brings us back to a time in our past, or makes us think of a person or an event. This can be either a positive or negative thing.

The emotional brain

It is important to know that smell is part of the limbic system, and because of where it is located in the brain it has easy access to the amygdala. The amygdala is that part of the brain where we process emotion and emotional responses. For this reason, the amygdala is also sometimes called the “Emotional Brain.” This is why smell trigger memory, more specifically emotional memory.

The amygdala is also that part of the brain that takes over for the rational brain during an emotional hijacking triggered for instance, by fear or anger.

The learning brain

Also, smell has easy access to the hippocampus part of the brain, which is responsible for associative learning. Then conditioned responses come into play, meaning associate olfactory sensory input to certain events, persons, things or moments. This means that smell can’t help us memorize the dictionary, but it triggers other memories. (Though I am sure this is easier to accomplish with a positively anchored nice smell, versus one that is not.)

Why does smell trigger memory?

We are first exposed to most smells at a young age. Before age 4 we are little unconscious minds running around, little sponges where it comes to acquiring knowledge. The younger we are, the more information we acquire. That’s why often memories triggered by smell are from childhood. When we first experience a smell, we link it to a mood, event, thing, person or moment.

Lastly, smell can be heavily anchored to a positive or negative emotional state. Whether that being a perfume, wood burning fire, or bread baking. But also otherwise foul odors can have positive anchors to people especially when they were created in childhood even before birth. The smell of cigarettes, because your mother smoked for instance. Or the smell of gasoline because your favorite uncle worked at a gas station.

What smell trigger memory for you?

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