The Science Behind Scent and Memory

Fragrance can transport you back to a special place, time, or person with one gentle inhale. Why not use it to sharpen your sweetest memories?

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We've all experienced it. You get a whiff of something familiar — the briny smell of the sea, a flower in bloom, or a scent you can't quite put your finger on — and suddenly, with a surge of emotion, you've stepped back in time. Here's the biological explanation: Your olfactory bulb, where smell is processed, links directly to the hippocampus, the part of your brain where memories are stored, and to the amygdala, where emotions are recorded.

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"None of our other senses have such an immediate and unique connection to these brain structures," says Rachel Herz, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. When we see or hear something, for example, it has to be processed by a different part of the brain, and then evaluated emotionally. With scent, it's just the opposite, says Herz. "The first thing that hits us is the emotional and memory response, and then we figure out where it came from."

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So could you use fragrance as you create new memories, to help recall life highlights — your wedding day, say, or an ­amazing vacation, or a big milestone like a graduation? Many experts say yes. In fact, Pamela Dalton, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says a former graduate student and his fiancée experimented with this when they got married. The couple chose a unisex fragrance to wear that day, and now only spritz it on when their anniversary comes around. "They're on their fourth anniversary, and tell me that a whiff sends chills right through them," Dalton says.

Even businesses are getting in on the game: High-end hotel chains have been known to pump a signature scent through their properties in the hopes of sparking emotional memories of your stay — and the hankering to return — whenever you smell it again. Retail stores, car dealerships, and banks also use "scent marketing" to lure you in and foster an attachment to their brand. (If you've ever walked past a scrumptious-smelling kiosk inside a mall and suddenly gotten a craving for Mom's homemade cinnamon buns, you know what we're talking about.) Scenting your peak experiences sounds so ­intriguing, we sniffed out the top ways to do it.


1. Pick a Unique Smell

The aromas that draw out distant memories are usually highly personalized, and not something you're picking up on every day, says Jay ­Gottfried, M.D., PhD, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University and an expert in the neuro­science of smell. "I like mint, but it doesn't bring me back anywhere special because I've encountered it so many times," he says. Pick something you find pleasant, but make sure it doesn't already remind you of anything or anyone else.

2. Guide Your Emotions

Think about how you want to feel when you recall a time or place, then choose a fragrance that'll key into that mood, says ­Caroline Ivanica, a perfumer for Drom Fragrances. Citrus notes have been shown to improve your mood; musky and woodsy notes conjure up cozy feelings; and green, mossy notes tend to make you feel energetic, she says.

3. Wear It Sparingly

Spritz on that fragrance for the event or encounter you want to remember. Then stick it on the shelf for a while. The reason the experiment worked so well for Dalton's student is that the couple brought the scent out only once a year, on their anniversary. "Its power wasn't ­diminished," she says. You don't have to wait quite that long, but let at least several weeks go by before you spray it on again.

4. Dab It Where You'll Notice It

If you want your scent to linger through an hours-long event, Herz suggests ­applying it on ­classic pulse spots such as the wrists and neck. These throbbing, warm areas help ­amplify the fragrance. Also, give fragrance some staying power by layering it over an unscented lotion or oil. Perfume doesn't last long on dry skin, Herz says.

5. Scent the Small Stuff, Too

You can use fragrance to feel joyful and less stressed when doing everyday things, or to reinforce a good habit like exercise. "If you make an ­association between a fragrance and a relaxing ­activity like yoga, a ­massage, or meditation, it's been shown that smelling it later can have a calming effect," says Dalton. Plus, sniffing a scent you love while doing something challenging like a workout can help you muster the motivation to power through, she explains.


The link between sense of smell and memory is so strong that loss of smell can happen in the very early stages of Alzheimer's disease. The reason: Plaque tends to build up in the olfactory parts of the brain even before it shows up in areas responsible for cognition, coordination, and memory. For dementia and Alzheimer's patients who haven't lost their sense of smell, pros will introduce various scents to boost memory and cognitive function — an emerging field known as scent therapy.

"We don't understand 100 percent why it works," says ­Dalton. "It may be that a familiar scent brings back a set of memories, or returns people to a calmer, less confused state so that they can operate on a higher cognitive level."

­Exposing patients to the smells of ­lavender, lemon, and orange has been shown to do just that. Food-­inspired scents can cue ­people with dementia to eat their meals, a common challenge. (That's why Demeter ­Fragrance concocted foodie ­fragrances such as ­"Tomato Soup" and "American Pancakes" to be used on dementia patients.)

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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