When the smell of a recently baked cake reminds you of birthdays from your childhood, the smell of a homemade soap reminds you of your grandmother, or a certain perfume transports you to a certain moment in time, it isn’t a coincidence! It’s because of our olfactory memory.
The sense of smell is one of the strongest senses that we have, which is why the olfactory memory allows us to associate a smell with certain moments, places or persons through a cerebral process that is as complex as it is interesting. By this process, when we smell the same aroma again, it takes us back to the place or moment in which we first smelled it.
As people we begin to form olfactory memories very early, which is why babies recognize the smell of their mothers very quickly. Olfactory memories also develop a protective role, alarming us if we smell ammonia, rotting food, smoke…
When we experience a new aroma, unconsciously we associate it with that specific moment. The brain stores it as a memory, associating the odour with the moment in which we smelled it. But how does this happen?
How olfactory memories are formed
Our smell receptors, known as olfactory epithelia, situated inside the nasal cavities, capture an olfactory stimulation and send an electric signal to the olfactory bulb, a structure in charge of processing the information sent by the smell receptors. The olfactory bulb receives this information and distributes it to different parts of the brain, especially to the limbic system. The amygdala connects this aroma with an emotion, and the hippocampus relates the aroma to a memory. That is how the links are formed that make up the olfactory memory.
Perfumes are the aromas that we identify and relate to the most. That’s why when a person finds an aroma that characterizes him or her, it becomes his or her own smell, stored immediately by the olfactory epithelia, and carried to the brain of the people who smell it. So, even though this perfume may also be used by other people, in our olfactory memory, that specific fragrance belongs to him or her and it will cause us to remember it as his or her own.
And you, do you have an aroma that characterizes you? We’d love to know about it.