Home » Senior Living News Blog » The Power Of Smell In Memory
Alzheimer’s Care | June 21, 2016 | By Jonita Dixon

The Power Of Smell In Memory

senior-friendsIt has likely happened to you before…you smell a familiar scent and it sends your memory spiraling back to your childhood. It can be the smell of something so simple like a pine tree, flower, newspaper ink, a new book (or an old book for that matter), and suddenly you are drawn into some of your richest memories complete with the smallest details in the most vibrant colors. How can this be?

The Power Of Smell Explained

It is because our olfactory senses are invoking the “odor evoked autobiographical memory,” and yes, that is a mouthful (or rather a nose-full). In other words, you just experienced what is known as Proust phenomenon, an experience named after Marcel Proust, a French writer. The writer is the author of “In Search of a Lost Time,” a well-known novel where the narrator in the story takes up a Madeleine cookie and dunks it into his cup of tea, only to find he is brought back to his childhood and a flood of memories.

The Trigger In The Proust Phenomenon

The thing about the Proust phenomenon is that smells trigger the richest memories, more than touch, sight, or even sound. The reasons for this are not known exactly, but one theory holds that the human brain processes memories and odors differently. A scent goes through the olfactory bulb, which allows the scent to be analyzed – this is closely associated with the hippocampus and amygdala, which is the region of the brain that handles, you guessed it – emotion and memory.

Since none of your other senses are routed through the olfactory bulb, this may be why the smell of things triggers memories in the way other senses do not. Before getting to the thalamus, a smell has to work its way through different brain regions, particularly where memory and emotions are controlled. There is extra processing going on with an odor analysis, which is why it may trigger more memories. What’s more, there are at least 1000 more receptors for scents than there are for any other of the senses: This allows you to distinguish between lots of smells even if you cannot identify them specifically. Interestingly, the oldest memories one has are often associated with smell, where those in young adulthood are associated with visual and verbal senses.

Researchers have found that if one’s sense of smell is diminished it can prove an early biomarker of a cognitive issue like neurodegenerative Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. The memories that smells invoke are often linked to the feeling of being back in time and interestingly, these memories are triggered less often than all others are.

Twice as many memories are recalled when they are triggered by scent. This is exactly why many of the options found at www.carltonseniorliving.com also experiment with such options as aromatherapy for their residents, precisely because of the tremendous power that is can evoke.