Smells evoke memories

Did you know that smell is closely linked to parts of the brain that process memory and emotion?

This week, when I opened a package of holiday potpourri (purchased on impulse at Costco) I was bombarded with memories related to smells. As I ripped the cellophane from the cluster of pine cones, dried flowers, and spray-painted dried nuts, a spicy Christmas smell brought a bevy of memories. 

The smell transported me back to childhood when my mother’s kitchen was filled with similar scents as she prepared foods laced with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves in preparation for the holidays. These smells immediately evoked emotions of warmth, happiness, and comfort.

As I think of various smells, I am flooded with memories. I think of freshly cut grass, the smell of baby powder on a newborn, incense in a yoga studio, and the pine needles of a real Christmas tree. These are examples of smells that bring emotions of joy and calm as well as memories of experiences related to the smells.

Food smells such as citrus, cucumber, chocolate, freshly baked bread or cookies (to name a few) evoke memories as the sense of smell amplifies taste in foods. Smell and taste work together to give food its flavour.  Perhaps that’s why food doesn’t taste the same when you have a cold with nasal congestion — it’s not the food, it’s your inability to properly smell the food.

pine cone on round brown bowl
Smells evoke Memories — pine cones and potpourri — photo courtesy of Mel Poole on Unsplash

Smell is Personal

Our memories and associations influence whether a smell evokes happy memories and positive emotions. That spicy potpourri did little for my husband who remarked that we had a strange smell coming from the kitchen island. 

Scents that are pleasant for some are neutral or even disgusting to others. These reactions relate to memories associated with the smell. I may love the floral scent from a bouquet of roses while my friend may associate roses with a lost lover or a visit to a funeral home.  A pot of beef stew may smell wonderful — unless you are a vegan and repulsed by the smell of meat.

Marketing and Smells

Marketers smartly manipulate emotions to maximize approach behaviours and encourage buying decisions. Most of us recognize the tempting smells from the Cinnabon counter at the mall food court or the smell of a barista’s freshly ground coffee at any Starbucks. Who can enter a movie theatre and resist the smell of buttered popcorn in the lobby?

High-end retail stores and hotels brand themselves with smells by using perfume to create a calming and positive mood. It’s known as olfactory branding.

Marketers help retailers choose barely perceptible ambient odours to shape consumer intentions with subconscious influences. People remember the scent of leather in certain shoe stores or at the counter that sells luxury purses. Large bookstores use scents to encourage customers to linger while scanning shelves and fingering the merchandise.

gold perfume bottle on red and white floral textile
Smells evoke Memories — marketing fragrance — photo by Loes Klinker on Unsplash

Most readers know about the strong association between smell and purchase decisions of fragrance and cosmetic products. What would happen to perfume counters without the connection between fragrance and desire? 

The same might be said for that satisfactory reward from the ‘new car’ smell on occasions when we buy a new vehicle! I’m told that used car dealers use a similar scent to increase consumer satisfaction.

Newly purchased sneakers have a special rubber smell.  When my son was growing up, he loved going to stores to buy sports shoes.  After purchasing new runners, I would find him in his room admiring the shoes and smelling them.  Too bad the shoes lost that new smell rather quickly!

Nasty Smells and Memories

Nasty smells also evoke memories. An over-used cat litter tray, stale cigarette smoke on clothing, rotten food or human body odours are capable of creating revulsion. Foul smells get labelled as disgusting, repugnant, and offensive.  

Unpleasant odours can induce negative reactions that cause people to turn away from the smell. Such avoidance behaviours are protective to a degree as bad smells, from smoke or spoiled food can cause serious harm.

Emotional Attachment and Smells

Smells bring comfort to people grieving the loss of a close loved one. It’s common to hear of grieving widows keeping pieces of clothing worn by their husbands for solace.  Likewise, a grief-stricken widower may be brought to tears when encountering someone wearing a perfume that he associated with his deceased wife.

Some researchers believe that smell is a factor that attracts people to each other and may create the conditions for love relationships.  The genes in our immune system attract us to our partners.  This makes me wonder if dating sites will introduce a ‘smell test’ as one of the suggestions when looking for a mate!

Lavender oil is popularly believed to reduce anxiety and provide a calming effect.  Lavender-infused pillows are marketed to promote relaxation and good sleep. Citrus oils are said to ease stress and anxiety.

Many of us have had experiences where a certain smell — such as the spicy potpourri — brings a rush of strong memories and emotions. The December holidays (Christmas at our house) offer many opportunities to use the sense of smell to help us remember precious things we value about the celebrations. 

For me, I’ll start with the spices in the potpourri. Then I’ll move on to foods, candles, the Christmas greenery and the smell of fresh cold snow when my front door opens to welcome visitors. What smells will you enjoy during the holidays?  More importantly, what memories and emotions will you cherish?




6 Replies to “Smells evoke memories”

  1. I remember walking into the library with my eleven year old granddaughter, an avid reader. She took a deep breath and said “Ah, the smell of books!”

    1. Books and libraries have a special smell. This is especially true for all of us who love to read!
      I hope your granddaughter is still reading!
      Be well,

  2. For many years I used to buy a different fragrance every time I went on holiday, now, even decades later, I still associate particular scents with vacation memories. However, I experienced one of my greatest olfactory delights a few years ago walking through a beech wood in Northumberland (ash trees populate our local woodland where I now live) and I was immediately transported back to my childhood when beech trees also dominated the landscape. It’s not a smell I would normally even recognise and I confess came as a complete surprise as until then I’d never fully realised the extent to which geographical locations can have their own smell based on the tree growth.

    1. How interesting that you associate scents with vacation memories! When researching information for the blog post, I came upon some Google entries positing that smell evokes stronger memories than any of the other five senses. As for the smell from the woods, it’s also common for the geographical smells to change with the seasons.
      Enjoy the Northumberland walks — and the smells!
      Be well,

  3. I recently put out some Christmas potpourri that I had stored in a plastic shoe box. It was a gift from my sister, and she likely bought it at Costco. 🙂 It smells so good! Your post made me think about all the smells I have enjoyed – and likely didn’t appreciate enough. I like the smell of a campfire when we are out in our travel trailer. We rarely make a campfire, but I do enjoy seeing and smelling others. My son and daughter in law had a wonderful smelling hand soap when we visited earlier this year. Pre-covid, I remember having my hair washed and the person using a strawberry smelling shampoo. I loved the whole experience! Thanks for reminding me to notice and take in all the wonderful smells. And the best part – no calories! Enjoy the season!

    1. I hadn’t thought about calories when writing the post although I know the close connection between the sense of smell and the sense of taste. I, too, love the smell of soaps and shampoos. At the cottage, my granddaughter spends far too long in the shower whenever there is a new bottle of body wash with a unique smell. I wonder what memories she will have? It’s wonderful to appreciate all the scents in our world!
      Be well,

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