How to Tap Into Memories You Can Smell

Freshly baked cookies. Warm vanilla. Flower. citrus. Grill. Clean laundry. Smells are one of life’s simple pleasures. On a deeper level, the fragrance is special because of its ability to capture magical moments and turn them into meaningful memories. It’s a crucial part of the human experience and who we are as individuals.

“We process information through smells,” says Saskia Wilson-Brown, director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction. “[Smell] goes to our olfactory bulb, which relays it to the brain, enabling recognition.” Like sight, hearing, taste, and touch, smell is a sensory input that can trigger memories and emotions. “It’s a bit different than other senses because it bypasses the rational part of our mind and goes straight to the parts that process memories and learned responses. For this reason it is more original than, for example, seeing, which we can analyze better.”

Smell is also closely related to taste. While orthonasal smelling is through our nose, retronasal smelling is through the back of our mouth. In fact, smell is the melting pot of flavors that we experience. in one Harvard Gazette article, life sciences professor Venkatesh Murthy explains that you can test this theory by holding your nose while eating something like ice cream. Instead of tasting the specific taste, he says, “Anything you can taste is sweet.” That’s why scents, like childhood foods, can help us happily remember the good old days.

“Everyone’s olfactory memories are pretty specific to them,” says Wilson-Brown. “For example, people often say, ‘Lavender has a calming effect.’ What they forget in that statement is that they have been conditioned by social input and by their own experience to believe that lavender is calming.”

If a family member has lovingly placed lavender on your pillowcase when you’ve been stressed, you might have a positive association with the scent. If you’ve been a day laborer on a lavender farm or had less than pleasant associations with lavender, it might not be as relaxing. “Personal experience,” says Wilson-Brown, “carries so much.”

There are all kinds of cultural and personal insights that go into the notion of whether an odor is appealing or repulsive. Throughout life, through this sensory experience, we can play with and create our own compelling stories. In this way you can awaken old memories or create new ones with your nose – and the power of the scent.

Grow your smell muscle

For those who lose their sense of smell as they age, there is actually a way to improve it. Because your nose is a muscle, it can be strengthened and exercised daily. Trade weightlifting for sniffing by being careful with your nose. A 2017 Brain Imaging and Behavior Paper found that you can increase the size of your olfactory bulb by creating a routine where you smell four aromas — whether wine, food, or fragrance — twice a day for about 30 seconds each.

Wear it for months

Wilson-Brown proposes a fun and unique experiment inspired by Andy Warhol’s idea to create memory boxes with scents. “Andy Warhol did this cool thing where he wore a scent for three months and then put it aside in a box,” she explains. “He did this to capture the memory of those three months through the visceral sense of smell.”

smiling woman with perfume

Give the scents time to make an impression.

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Wilson-Brown encourages experimenters to commit to wearing a fragrance for a period of time, observe that chapter in their mind or write about it in a journal, and revisit the fragrance a few months later to see what emerges. While you might need a bit of a budget for perfume, you can also tinker through more affordable body sprays, room spritzes, and alternative scents using this creative method.

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Create a fragrance routine

Jessica Murphy, fragrance lecturer and author at Now smell that And Perfume Professor, says you can use a personal scent or room scent to set a mood or create a routine that lets your mind know when it’s time to work, relax, or do another activity. “Scents can create a private ambiance for you and your thoughts,” she says, “like music or lighting or a nice wallpaper around you.”

Start scent impressions

Wilson-Brown encourages everyone to quit only smell the roses. “Be more aware of how we process smells,” she advises. Start writing down your scent impressions throughout the day and which scents make you feel or think – from a spicy curry to a flamboyant essential oil.

“Developing conscious awareness of this rather unconscious process is one way to increase awareness of the scent-memory connection,” adds Wilson-Brown. It also allows you to reflect on important moments in your life and what might be important to you now.

Man writes diary next to candles

Tracking olfactory memories increases awareness.

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“Use a small notebook or note-taking app to list the smells you encounter throughout the day, or even part of your day,” Murphy suggests, such as a morning commute, a bike ride, or a run, or a Round shopping errands. “You might be surprised at what you notice… and then notice again the next time.”

Be selective

When it comes to smells, sometimes it’s fun to soak up the memories after an experience. You can also be responsible for forging your own scent memories. “If you want to consciously create a memory in an environment,” says Wilson-Brown, “make sure you’re smelling that environment in a consistent way.”

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At home, you can light specific candles, get plug-ins, light incense, or use essential oils to support that sensory memory in a safe space. You can do the same at work. For special occasions like a wedding or birth, choose a perfume or cologne that will help you remember the day. “It’s all about awareness,” she says, “and being aware of your impressions.”

two women in a cosmetics store trying fragrances

Intent can lead to a stronger scent connection.

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Murphy notes that the most important thing to remember is to follow your nose. “Just because a perfume or candle suddenly seems super popular with everyone on TikTok doesn’t mean you have to chase it,” she says. The fragrance expert suggests exploring the work of specific fragrance guides, brands or independent perfumers, particularly brand creators who create fragrances inspired by their own memories, such as CB I hate perfume, Maya Njie perfumesor MCMC fragrances. “Trust your own instincts, set your own pace and enjoy your own olfactory experiences and your own scent-memory connections.”

Think beyond perfume

While your thoughts might go straight to perfume or certain foods for scent-inspired nostalgia, there are a number of creative ways to get your nose going. Murphy says you can also cultivate connections to scents in your life through flavored tea, incense, spices, and scented body products. “When you use or taste something with a distinctive aroma,” she says, “take a moment to notice how it makes you feel or what makes you think.”

Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.

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