How scents and memories are connected
A while ago I came across a scent named Old Wood. When I smelled it for the first time, it occurred to me as strange and heavy. It was earthy and dusty, reminding me a bit of an old basement and moist blocks of wood. It was not a beautiful scent in an obvious way. It was intense and overpowering. However, when I smelled it for a second time, it came to me as more pleasant and relaxing. Some distant memory from childhood appeared in the back of my mind. First I thought about my grandfather smoking his pipe in the armchair; then about our family’s summer house when opened for the first time after a cold winter. The scent brought it all back in a few seconds, and I wanted to smell it again.
The connection between scents and memories
Scientists agree that we create most of our scent-related memories already in childhood. Our early experiences have a lifelong impact on our fragrance preferences in adulthood. The smells we experienced as pleasant in our young years, will feel pleasant our whole lives. And the other way round, if we connect a smell with a bad experience, it’s gonna stay like this probably forever.
Of all our senses, smell is the most closely linked to memory, but it has an impact not only on the kind of perfume or candles we choose – it can be an important factor in life decisions like choosing the right partner. Besides that, did you know that smell is actually connected with taste, too?
Taste and smell go together
“When you chew, molecules in the food make their way back retro-nasally to your nasal epithelium,” meaning that essentially, “all of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell,” says Venkatesh Murthy from Harvard University.
This means also that when we think about tastes, in big part we actually use our smell-related memory. In fact, if your sense of smell is damaged, you won’t be able to fully enjoy your food.
Personal experiences vs. scent preferences
As a candle maker, I have the opportunity to see how differently people react to the same scents. There is a group of fragrances that are universally liked, primarily floral and fresh. But there is also a group of distinctive, more complex aromas, which are usually adored by individual memory associations. Scents and memories are strongly connected. For example, patchouli scent, heavy and intoxicating, might seem unattractive for a teenager, but for someone who remembers the 70s when it was one of the hottest scents of the Epoque, it will be a sentimental, and beautiful scent of the counterculture. I remember my grandmother had a little round wooden box with a tiny hole carved inside, filled up with a patchouli-scented creme. Whenever I smell a patchouli candle, I think of this little box at my grandma’s home.
In the same way, we buy more Apple & Cinnamon candles during cold weather months because it reminds us of a warm apple pie that we used to smell on this or another occasion years ago. We buy Lavender candles or shower gel because it feels relaxing to us. The vanilla scent is universally liked and well-known as a mood improver because most of the sweets we have ever eaten have at least a drop of it; all the ice cream, cakes, and cookies have something vanilla-like in them. The vanilla scent brings all the sweet times back somewhere on a subconscious level. It has anti-depressive, anxiety-removing, and relaxing qualities.
The smell is stronger than the sight
Scents and memories are connected so strongly, that smell brings back memories much easier than sight. That means that sometimes you can get an unexpected endorphin boost from perfume or the scented candle before you even realize why you like this smell so much. So the next time you suddenly get happy feelings and some distant memory throwback gets you, sniff around and let your nose lead you. And when you need to relax, try to find a pleasant thought and think if there’s a smell that comes to your mind together with it – this might be a good starting point for your next candle shopping :).
If you’d like to learn more about aromatherapy and the psychological benefits of scents, read our article here.