The Link Between Scent and Memory

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a young woman smelling tree blossoms

If someone asked you to name three of your all-time favorite fragrances, what would they be? Many of us – in fact, most of us – would hearken back to our earliest years, citing a waft of our mother’s or grandmother’s cooking, a cozy holiday scent or a cologne or perfume on the wrists of a fi rst love. Scent and memory are intrinsically linked, and a familiar aroma can take us back to bygone eras.

kids smelling mom's cooking
The recent emphasis on the importance of memory and its relationship to a healthy mind might get us thinking about how a simple fragrance is able to foster certain memories or keep them vivid. After all, smell is powerful; it can encourage relaxation, excite desire or alert us to danger. Could scent be the secret to a sharper intellect as we age?

“The smells I still remember tend to be the ones I encountered regularly; shoe polish always comes to mind, as my mother used to make me clean my school shoes every week as a child!” he reminisced.

But why is this the case – that the stench of shoe polish could arouse childhood memories? Though Boak admitted that it’s “an area that isn’t well-understood,” part of the link is due to our olfactory bulb, a neural structure involved in our sense of smell. The olfactory bulb processes information about a certain odor and sends that information to the brain – and, speaking of the brain, the bulb is closely connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which deal with memory and emotion.
Smells: losemary and lavender essential oils and green on a cutting board
The “Proust phenomenon” is a term coined for the fact that our emotions are piqued more by fragrance than by sight.
Dr. Mark Moss, head of the Psychology Department at Northumbria University, has been researching how to retain memories with the help of fragrances – namely, essential oils, the most concentrated form, and mostly rosemary and lavender.

“I’ve focused closely on rosemary and lavender, largely because they possess reputations for contrary effects, with rosemary being stimulating and lavender being sedative,” Dr. Moss explained. “To date, my research has focused on the potential for the aromas to impact cognitive processes (memory and attention) and mood in healthy adults.”

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Dr. Moss has tested the results of rosemary and lavender on several different adult age groups, including those over 65 years, but, he said, none of these subjects had noticeable cognitive impairments. He found that the data for rosemary showed small improvement when it came to long-term memory and prospective memory – that is, recalling things to do in the future – but less for working memory. Of course, it’s worth noting that none of Dr. Moss’ subjects thus far were plagued with real memory issues.

“I have plans to investigate if any effects might be possible for those with memory problems, but I must point out that I doubt very much if any possible reinstatement of that which has been forgotten is possible,” he commented.

As disappointing as that sounds, there’s a beacon of hope: If we start now, we might be able to “maintain and improve memory function looking forward.”

“We know there are compounds present in the aromas of essential oils that act on the brain’s messenger systems and that these can be absorbed into the blood if we sit in a room infused with the aroma,” Dr. Moss explained. “As such, I argue that these compounds can act on the brain in a positive way to enhance performance.”

Both Dr. Moss and Boak urge us to take care of our sense of smell as a way of taking care of our memories – and to exercise our sense of smell, inhaling deeply and frequently when we want something to stay with us.

“When you visit places you love, take in the smells as well as the sights and sounds.”

Want to learn more about the mission of Fifth Sense and ways we can improve taste, smell and cognitive function? Fifth Sense is partnering with The University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste to host SmellTaste in February of 2017. According to Boak, “This new, educational event is targeted to individuals around the world who have impaired taste or smell function.” Find out more about the event by visiting

By Denise K. James

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