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The Sense of Smell: Nasal Nostalgia
A pretty aroma is more than just a pleasant smell—it may also remind us of precious moments in the past. Read on to learn more about how the sense of smell and memory intertwine.
The sense of smell might not be the primary sense in humans—it isn’t as powerful, say, as sight or our sense of regret—but it’s the one most likely to elicit an emotional response. That’s in part because the olfactory bulb, the organ responsible for smell, is located very near both the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, and the hippocampus, which is associated with memory. More than any other stimulus, a smell can transport a person back to a precious childhood moment, such as the first time they smelled fresh-cut grass or marshmallows toasting over a crackling campfire.
Beyond lying so close to key parts of the brain, olfaction may have another reason for recalling such vivid memories, in that it’s the first of the five senses to fully mature. As a result, researchers at Stockholm University found, most of us tend to associate smells with moments from our early childhood—whereas a certain visual cue, for example, might only remind us of our teens. Moreover, the first aroma we associate with a person or moment tends to be the one that sticks. As Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University told the New York Times, “With a phone number, if you get a new one, a week later you may have forgotten the old one… with smells, it’s the other way around. The first association is better than the second.” So when you meet somebody new, wearing a pleasing perfume or cologne can do more than cement a good first impression—it may also ensure that that impression lasts long after you’ve said your goodbyes.