Why Do Certain Scents Trigger Vivid Memories?

Why Do Certain Scents Trigger Vivid Memories?
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Your sense of smell is a powerful thing. Just one quick whiff of your grandmother’s perfume, or an ocean breeze, or hell, the aroma of someone cooking a packet of mi goreng noodles, will – in many cases – transport you to another time and place. It’s an immediate thing, and I don’t think many of us give enough credit to the incredible connection our brains create between fragrance and memory.

If you think about scented candles, especially those named for certain travel destinations, there’s something special about the experience they bring. While, for loads of people, smelling a coconut and lime candle is merely a pleasant time for the nose, for many others, lighting a specific candle and filling a room with its fragrance acts as a clear reminder of a certain time and place.

There’s a whole lot of science behind this sensory experience, and Nicole Eckels – the founder and CEO of Glasshouse Fragrances – knows all about that. I chatted with her over email to get a better understanding of the relationship between memory and fragrance, and the best way to use smell to transport yourself, especially when travel isn’t an option.

Why is fragrance so good at triggering memories?

It’s science, baby. Eckels explained that our “sense of smell works differently with our brains compared to our other senses (touch, sight, sound or taste)”.

“Firstly, we have over 1,000 different types of smell receptors versus 4 light receptors and 4 touch receptors. And smell seems to bypass the neural pathways our other senses follow, going directly to the olfactory bulb in the brain,” she said.

Wondering what the olfactory bulb is? Allow me to explain. In essence, it’s a structure in the brain that receives messaging regarding odours in the nasal cavity.

Eckels continued, sharing that “The olfactory bulb is connected to the amygdala (the integrative centre for emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation) and hippocampus (it has a major role in learning and memory)”.

The fact that the part of your brain charged with managing smell is connected to areas related to memory, behaviour and memory is precisely “why certain fragrances can take us back to the past in a matter of seconds,” she shared.

Seemingly, the two functions are often intertwined.

This will naturally look pretty different for everyone, because we’ve each formed specific memories around varying smells, depending on our lived experience. But there are some scents that will have a similar impact on larger groups of people, however. Think sea salt or coconut and tropical beach locations.

When it comes to creating a scent that triggers a memory of a place, what goes into the process?

smell and memory
Image supplied. Glasshouse Fragrances.

Here, Eckels explained that time, experimentation and being open to inspiration sits at the core of the experience.

“For example, creating A Tahaa Affair Devotion, it took me three years to create the fragrance with perfumer Dominique Bouley. Other fragrances are different, generally [taking] anywhere from six to 18 months.

“I don’t think I’m ever consciously researching for a fragrance, which is also to say I’m always researching. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and so I’m always planning and investigating different combinations and ideas,” she said.

In short, you need to pay attention to the fragrances that surround you so you can replicate them if need be.

What are the best ways to transport yourself with scent?

Okay, so now that we know how and why scents are so connected to our memories, how do we best use this function to create an environment that evokes particular memories or emotions?

Well, there are loads of ways.

Eckels suggested that to start, you should “Bring fragrance into every aspect of your day”.

“In the morning I use a beautiful body wash (Kyoto in Bloom) and then layer that with the Eau de Parfum of the same fragrance. I was inspired to create Kyoto In Bloom after visiting Japan a few years ago. It was such a beautiful trip and filled with so many happy memories.”

She then highlighted that throughout different parts of your day, you can use specific fragrances to set the tone.

“…if I’m burning a candle during the day while I’m working, [I make sure] that I burn a different fragrance on the weekend or after business hours.

“Help separate the day and set the mood for how you want to feel – it’s no different to playing classical music to help you think while working and then jazz music at night for dinner,” she said.

The final point she made was to use food smells as another way to trigger happy memories of people or places. Feeling a little down? Make a dish you enjoyed as a kid. You’ll be surprised by how powerful that experience can be.

“…the fragrance from food will quickly fast-track you to another time and place,” she said.

If you’d like to learn more about the Glasshouse Eau de Parfum Collection, you can read on here.

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