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Memory and Scent Psychology

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Although I am someone who appreciates all forms of art, from visual fine art, contemporary sculpture to interior design, from product architecture design to the performing arts, I find scent particularly interesting as a form of sensory expression.


Whereas the visual arts occupy space, and the performing arts exist in time, and both can jog our memories in unexpected ways, it is sense of scent that can tap into our deepest long forgotten memories and existence, and throw us, unexpectedly, back in time.

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How does our sense of smell do this? Smell and memory are closely linked as the olfactory bulb sends scent molecules to the limbic system. The brain's limbic system are where our moods, feelings, behaviour and memories are processed. The long term memory is 'stored' here and the limbic system connects current olfactory experiences with previous emotional experiences. All other sensations travel to the thalmus which acts as a switchboard redirecting them other parts of the brain whereas scent bypasses the switchboard and delves deep into the human psyche. As there are so many different aromas we can experience in life, the depth of attached meanings can be vast. These strong associations between smell and emotion are felt to have been long lost in the unconscious mind until they rush to our consciousness, triggered by the evocative scent. These memories may have never even surfaced again had they not been recalled by experiencing a particular scent again. It is also said that although we can instantly react with an emotional response to the scent, the actual memory may not actually be recalled.


Research shows that smell is the only sense to be fully developed at 3 months whilst the fetus is in the womb. Scent is the dominant sense in a child up to the age of ten years old and it continues to develop as we experience new smells. As a child we create "the basic scent likes and dislikes for the rest of your life.


"Scent and emotion are stored as one memory" Dawn Goldworm, Scent Director of olfactive branding company 12:29


People's scent likes and dislikes can vary greatly from person to person and are believed to be so firmly embedded that it is difficult to 'reprogram' these associations.


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