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New Research Explains Why Scent Triggers Such Powerful Memories



Community Psychiatry’s Dr. Magavi was featured in Verywell discussing the ability of scent to alleviate stress and anxiety.

Certain smells, both good and bad, have a way of transporting us back to specific moments in our lives. Likely, you can even call one to mind right now.

A new study published in Progress Neurobiology from Northwestern University explores the power of scent in triggering memories, suggesting this ability comes from the connection between the olfactory system and the hippocampus in the brain.1

As part of the limbic system, the hippocampus serves the most primitive aspects of our brain, like memory, pleasure, pain, and motivation.2 It plays a critical role in our ability to form new memories and acts as a sort of temporary storage and command center for their organization.

A better understanding of the olfactory system could help us better understand broader brain dysfunction and advance intervention and treatment.

The Study

The study, published in Progress in Neurobiology, set out to better understand the human olfactory system and its connection to memory.

Lead researcher Christina Zelano, PhD and the study’s team of researchers set out to better understand the profound role our sense of smell has in connecting us to our memories.

With the help of neuroimaging and intracranial electrophysiology, researchers were able to directly compare the ways in which the hippocampus functions across human sensory systems.

This comparison revealed that, at rest, the olfactory system is more strongly connected to the hippocampus networks than the other systems of sight, sound, taste and touch.1

The Scent-Brain Connection

Evolutionarily speaking, any animal’s sense of smell is a critical survival tool, Zelano says. We are constantly monitoring the air around us with every breath, sending information directly to our nervous system.

“It is our oldest sensory system, evolutionarily speaking, and the one located deepest in our brains,” she says. “It is a complex system, with many parallel paths delivering odor information simultaneously to many brain areas milliseconds after we sniff… This powerful sensory system is critical to our human experience. Yet it is perhaps the most poorly understood system compared to other human sensory systems.”

Our sense of smell is also profoundly connected to memory. Studies have shown that odor serves as a stronger trigger than any other sensory cue for recalling personally meaningful memories.3

“Smell and emotion intertwine and can be saved in the brain’s software for years,” says psychiatrist Leela Magavi, MD. “Scents that soothed children can continue to alleviate stress and anxiety for the entirety of adulthood. Scents that triggered anger and sadness can continue to result in negative emotions for years to come.”

“We can also use our sense of smell to very quickly assess complex aspects of our environment: good and bad smells can guide where we go, what we eat, who we like to be with, where we are comfortable or ill-at-ease,” she says. “And memory is a critical part of all of these decisions and more.”


Click here for the full article in Verywell.