How can a smell affect your memory? Do particular smells make you think of home, do they evoke feelings of safety and security? There has been much research in this area over the years by notable professors and psychologists that have linked smell to a wide range of different emotions. But the link between smell and the reassurance of familiarity is particularly important when moving away from those safe surroundings.
Our sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than any of our other senses, but it is highly personal. What can be a pleasant smell to one person can be awful to another, for example, farmyard smells might evoke pleasant memories for someone who grew up on or near a farm whereas most people would find these smells unpleasant or overpowering. As well as being closely linked to memory, smell is also highly emotive. The perfume industry has been built on the ability of a smell to evoke an emotional response.
But the perfume industry is not the only industry that strives to evoke positive memories with smell. The laundry industry has spent a lot of time, money and effort to create smells that evoke positive emotions and suggest to us that laundered clothing and other textiles are clean. Everything from your washing powder to your fabric softener contain perfume, all of which are designed to stimulate your senses when used.
The way that we form an association with smell may have something to do with the strong emotions we can experience when faced with that smell again. The olfactory bulb that processes incoming smells lies close to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. None of our other senses pass close to these areas and it is likely to be these areas that are most responsible for triggering the memories that come with certain smells.
Jo Hemmings, behavioural psychologist, says: “Our reaction to smell is associative – it is linked to our individual experiences, very frequently formed in infancy or early childhood, when we are our most impressionable to smell – and so we continue to have a strong conditioned auto-response or trigger to smells, good and bad, for the rest of our lives.”
The link between smell and memory is particularly important in education where smells that are associated with home are important when living away from it for long periods
The link between smell and memory is particularly important in education where smells that are associated with home are important when living away from it for long periods. A recognisable smell, something that we associate with home, is reassuring. For a child in boarding school this could mean taking a pillowcase from home to put on their bed or a favourite item of clothing. It could even mean soft toys washed at home. All of these things can help them to feel reassured and reminded of a place where they feel safe and loved.
A psychological link between a familiar smell and imagined reassurance is vital. Jo Hemmings goes on to say: “Research has shown that not only does our mood improve around a familiar smell – especially that of clothes, ambient air, towels and bedding – it also increases our pro-social behaviour.
“For example, we are more likely to help strangers, neighbours or friends as a result of the uplift in our mood. This clear link between a familiar smell and our resulting mood and behaviour both decreases anxiety and promotes self-care as well as giving us comfort, optimism and reassurance.”