Why Can Some Smells Bring Back Nostalgic Memories?

Written by , BA Hons Indrani Karmakar BA Hons linkedin_icon Experience: 2.5 years

Did you ever walk past a bakery, and the smell of freshly baked buns immediately reminded you of the bread your mommy used to bake when you were a kid? Not just the scent of food, it could be an old perfume, books, artifacts, and even the essence of an early morning walk! It is bizarre how smell triggers your brain and brings back the strongest memories. Now to think of it, is it mere coincidence, or does it have scientific reasoning? Let us look into why smell has the power of unlocking our memories and how we can use it to our advantage.

Bringing scientific research into the picture, the brain’s part that is concerned with our sense of smell is called the olfactory bulb [1]. It sends information to the hippocampus, which is responsible for creating new memories [2]. The olfactory bulb has easy access to the amygdala, which is the system that is responsible for memories and emotional responses [3]. The location of the olfactory bulb is next to this structure. This explains why certain smells can spark nostalgia. You may not identify particular odors at the moment, but your brain is continuously associating those smells with memories. This is why every time you walk past freshly cut grass, it reminds you of the times you played on it.

So, Why Does Smell Trigger Memories?

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The scientific word for the sense of smell is olfaction. As the result of close association with memories and emotions, we can evoke almost immediate recollections. What’s more, the olfactory system is physiologically linked to emotions more closely than any other sensory system. So whatever we see, taste, hear and touch are processed through the thalamus, but odor takes a direct route to the amygdala and hippocampus and gives immediate recollection.

For example, if you pick up an old photo album, the smell will first remind you of the time you held a book like that in your hand before reminding you of the moments in the pictures. This is such an amazing thing that our brain does, and no other sensory organs behave this way!

Why Do Most Scents Remind Us Of Our Childhood?

Why Do Most Scents Remind Us Of Our Childhood
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You must have noticed that almost every smell you inhale reminds you of something you did during your childhood. That is because a fragrance evokes memories only if you have a specific memory linked to it. It is the personal experience that triggers the memory of receiving a particular scent. The first time you experience a smell is usually in childhood, be it the smell of your home, the cupboard, books, classroom, etc. As you grow, it brings back memories of your youth. Even in your later life, if you smell something new, it will ring a bell to remind you of the moment you inhaled that particular smell first.


If you are going on a memorable vacation, try to pick a different cologne for yourself than usual and use it on the trip. Once you come back, every time you smell the cologne, it will remind you of the amazing time you had on your trip! You are welcome!

Scent’s Phenomenal Emotional Effect

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Fascinatingly, a smell can provoke strong emotional reactions without the reminiscence of an unambiguous memory. Sometimes it’s just the feeling we recall. When we inhale something, we feel the emotion followed by a cognitive recognition stored in our brain. It does not always happen immediately. It may take some time to reach that. The smell is the only sense that works that way. All the other sense organs recognize stimuli cognitively and then follow an immediate reaction by the brain. Now considering this, smell has a vital role to play in our mental health. We can train ourselves to be relaxed and happy in the presence of a scent that we associate with serenity and calmness. Simply a sniff of an odor that reminds you of your happy place can de-stress you in seconds.

How To Use Sense Of Smell To Your Advantage

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Now that we know how unique our sense of smell is, we can use it to train and strengthen our brains. Research shows that smelling different odors and memorizing them can improve your cognitive abilities and improve verbal fluency. There are several places where smell training is practiced and has brought promising results. The odors create new connections between brain cells or strengthen existing relationships to help you remember things better.

Who would have thought that sense of smelling would be so vital to us humans?! Do you remember the scent of rubber, petrol, incense sticks, and the first rain after a dry spell? What is your favorite smell that you remember since childhood? Let us know in the comments below!

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Indrani Karmakar

Indrani KarmakarSenior Social Writer

Indrani is a writer and artist who likes to add a dash of humor to everything she does. She has two years of experience in writing articles across beauty, health, and lifestyle genres. After graduating in Political Science from Calcutta University, she took a detour into the world of creativity and discovered her knack for social writing, advertising, designing, and doodling.

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