Why Some Smells Can Bring Back Nostalgic Memories

You pass by a bakery and the scent of fresh cinnamon rolls reminds you of the careless time you spent at your grandma’s as a child. Or it may be the fragrance of your mom’s perfume that you suddenly sense in a crowd and it makes you want to grab your phone and call her right away. It’s truly amazing how smells can trigger the most vivid memories and strongest emotions, and there’s actual science behind it.

We at Bright Side were curious to learn about why smells have that magical power of unlocking our memories, and here’s what we found out.

It’s the brain’s anatomy that closely connects smell and memory.

The part of the brain that deals with smells is called the olfactory bulb. This structure further sends the information to other parts of the brain, in particular, to the hippocampus which plays a crucial part in creating new memories for whatever happens to us. In our brain, the olfactory bulb, and the hippocampus are located close to each other.

The olfactory bulb also has easy access to the amygdala, the structure of the brain that is responsible for memories and emotional responses. The location of the olfactory bulb next to brain structures related to memories and emotions explains why odors can spark nostalgia. We may not even identify particular odors at particular moments of life, but our brain is associating those odors with memories. If the first time you tried a cinnamon roll was at your grandmother’s home, chances are your brain will connect the smell of that roll with your grandmother’s home.

Tastes can also bring memories back.

According to science, the flavors of the food we eat are actually a combination of tastes (sweet, for example) and smells. That’s why nostalgia can hit you hard when you eat something that your brain associates with a certain period of your life.

Smells can help you train your brain.

Our sense of smell is so closely linked to our brain structures, that the power of smelling can even be used to train our brain and our cognitive skills. Science says that smelling different odors, memorizing and identifying them, may improve cognitive abilities not connected to smell, like verbal fluency (the ability to produce as many words as possible from a particular category).

The so-called “smell training” that encourages people to smell and memorize different odors may result in generating new connections between brain cells or strengthening existing connections. Who knew smells had so much to do with the things going on in our brains?

Have you ever noticed how your memories come back to you once you sense a particular smell? What smells trigger vivid memories for you?

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