Scent of a Memory and the Proust Effect

Trigger your memorable memories using scent

By Dan
October 15, 2020

Some smells trigger memorable memories from a special time in your life. For instance, the aroma of freshly baked brownies always brings back memories of my best friend’s mom’s cooking. When I walk by the local pool and smell the chlorinated water, I remember my childhood summers.

How is it that we can remember vivid, memorable memories when we smell something we consider nostalgic? This phenomenon is originally called the  “Proust Effect” — after the novelist, Marcel Proust wrote about childhood memories triggered by the aroma of freshly baked madeleine cakes — this process was once thought of as purely involuntary.

But this memory process doesn’t have to be involuntary. We can hack the process of memory formation to our advantage. By pro-actively using scent daily in our lives, we can intensify experiences and fortify memory formation, helping to make life a richer and more enjoyable experience.

Memorable memories make us who we are. Our experience of the world is shaped by our mind’s interpretation of the emotions and meaning of past events. Present-day stimuli act as doorways to our past. They connect us to all that we cherish and the people we hold dear. Unfortunately, time and age can rob us of our ability to recall those precious memories.

The Science of Memory Cues

Whenever we experience something, our brain (specifically, the hippocampus) encodes sensory details (such as sounds) as part of the memory formation process. These sensory details are wired into our brains as memory cues. When you re-encounter a cue, it triggers the associated memory — along with the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that you initially experienced.

The great thing is that we can use our understanding of this process to purposefully manage memory formation to benefit ourselves in the future and easily recall our memorable memories when we want to look back.

How Scent is Different from Other Sensory Cues

We all know what it’s like to hear a song that triggers a feeling and a memory. However, the scent is unique. It is particularly good at triggering vivid memories. Why?

For most of our senses, information processing starts at the sensing organ (such as our eyes), then moves to the brain’s ‘relay station,’ the thalamus, which in turn sends each signal to the relevant sense-processing area (for example, the visual cortex in the case of sight).

But our sense of smell is different. Scent signals bypass the relay station entirely and go directly to their processor site, the olfactory bulb. This means that, unlike our other senses, there is no intermediate activity between sensing and processing. Scent-based experiences — and our memory of them — are more enhanced, more enriched.

The Special Connection Between Scent and Memories

Scent’s ability to trigger vivid and emotional memories is partly due to the close connection between the scent processing center (the olfactory bulb) and the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and memory — the amygdala and hippocampus, respectively.

According to Afif J. Aqrabawi and Jun Chul Kim, “The olfactory cortex in particular shares exclusive anatomical connections with the hippocampus as a result of their common evolutionary history.” 

Evolution has seen fit to make scent a high priority. Only 3% of our genes are involved in forming the 1,000 or so olfactory receptors we possess — a relatively large proportion of our total genome. In 2004, Doctors Buck and Axel won a Nobel Prize for explaining how these receptors enable us to recognize 10,000 different scents. There may be more to aromatherapy than many of us think!

Richer Memory Formation

You can use scent to build more memorable memories. The next time you do something you enjoy a lot, think about using scent to ingrain the memory deep in your mind.

Say you’re going on a vacation. Pick a scent — an essential oil, an herb, or a perfume — and designate it as the ‘special scent’ for your adventure. Regularly avail yourself of the scent throughout your travels. Later, sometime after returning home, break out your ‘special scent’ and see what happens. Memories — and the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that went with them — will wash over you, taking you back and helping you to relive the experience. Try this technique with special events, people, and anything else that you want to remember. 

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To learn more about prompting memories, check out this article: Remember More: Finding Your Memory Style.