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Most people will have had the experience of a certain scent, such as the perfume of a passer-by, triggering a memory of a certain time, place, or person. Sometimes, a long-forgotten episode of the past can loom in our minds as if it was yesterday. So, why does this happen, and is there any advantage to this trait?

 

There are various scientific studies to back up anecdotal evidence that our olfactory senses play a strong role in memory and emotion. For example, Very Well Mind reports that researchers from the University of California, Irvine, have discovered that the tendency has a neurological basis.

 

The memory centers of the brain, known as the amygdala and the hippocampus, are linked via neuron transmitters to the olfactory bulbs, which process smells. Therefore, fragrances and odors become stored in our memory banks, alongside other significant information about the surroundings, emotions, people, and so on, that were present at the time.

 

Smell is one of first senses to fully develop, and therefore it is associated with some of our strongest childhood memories. The sense of taste can also play a role, as was famously described in Marcel Proust’s 1913 work “À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu,” (translated as In Search of Lost Time, or sometimes also Remembrance of Things Past.)

 

In Swann’s Way, the first volume of the five-novel series, the protagonist has powerful memories triggered when he tastes madeleine cake crumbled in tea. This episode has been embedded into our cultural reference points, and people will often say they had a Proustian rush when a powerful or emotional memory suddenly flashes into their mind.

 

The power of scent is now widely acknowledged, and is even used as a marketing and branding tool by hotel and leisure chains, via a scent air machine. This reinforces the experience in the customer’s mind and memories, and can help to build brand associations when the customer is reminded of the scent at a later time.

 

It is believed to be so powerful because it is more difficult to remember vivid visual details, whereas a smell is an instant stimulus that can take right back to a specific place. There is an evolutionary basis to this highly honed olfactory ability too. In past eras, humans relied much more heavily on their sense of smell than they do now.

 

For example, an odor could alert a person to toxic substances and food that wasn’t safe to eat. They could also trigger a warning of an approaching predator, or a lingering scent could let someone know that a territory had been invaded.

 

This function of the sense of smell can be observed in animal species, as anyone with a pet cat or dog will no doubt be aware! They can often seem smell to food long before we have opened a tin of something tasty for them, because they associate a certain cupboard being opened with dinner time.

 

Animals also use smell as an early warning for predators, or to checkout if their territory has been invaded. Now, humans use their sense of smell in much more complex, but still very powerful and effective ways.

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Our team is here to help find the perfect scent marketing or odor control solution for your business. 

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