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Smells Like Home: Understanding Scent and Memory

This month’s BioBox covers the human senses. Of all five, smell is often the most overlooked, but it has a unique connection to memory that may surprise you.

“What makes this association fascinating is that it’s strictly subjective.”

Smell Influences More than Your Memory

With respect to the other senses, neural signals from stimuli are routed through the thalamus, which acts as a directory to take that information elsewhere in the brain. With scents, however, that information goes first to the olfactory bulb, then bypasses the thalamus and is sent directly to the amygdala and hippocampus—two regions that not only influence memory, but emotion as well. It’s for this reason that scientists accredit the strong correlation between a certain scent (like your father’s cologne) with an emotional memory (like playing with him in your childhood home).

What makes this association fascinating is that it’s strictly subjective. In other words, smell is associated with emotional, personal memories instead of more factual ones—the memorization of candle scents in a grocery store, for example. Interestingly enough, this distinction has caught the attention of entrepreneurs who have utilized the emotional component of smell to build their brand. Some hotels, for example, pump scents into their buildings in an attempt to create loyal customers through an emotional association with a stay in one of their rooms. If you were previously unaware of the association between smell and emotion, you could very well have been duped into brand loyalty.

Smell: Importance and Impact

Photo by Aung Soe Min via Unsplash

Knowing this about smell, a common side effect from a COVID-19 infection could have greater ramifications than a person may realize. Anosmia (a partial or total loss of smell) has been associated with reduced emotional acuity, a negative impact on relationships, and even depression. For a scent that’s often taken for granted, its loss is conspicuous, as a number of COVID-19 patients will tell you.

As you work through this month’s BioBox, take a look at the nose with a newfound appreciation. Smell is more than a fleeting sensory experience. It connects us to our past and the experiences we hold dear. For a sense so integral to our identities and relationships, it deserves more credit.

Continuing the Science Journey

BioBoxers get to test out their sense of smell as well as their other special senses in this month’s box. Why not join the fun! There are many exciting experiments coming in the new year.

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For more information on your sense of smell, check out these sources: