Transported By Scent: The Psychology of Smell, Memory, and Behavior Change

Transported By ScentThere are certain odors that transport me back to a different place and time. My elementary school had a specific perfume of chalk and blackboard erasers. The smell of burning leaves instantly calls to mind an autumn evening. Each of my grandmothers’ homes had their own unique scent, and catching a whiff of even one of the underlying component smells can recall a visit.

The way that scents can evoke detailed memories is not accidental. Of all of the senses, it’s perhaps smell that has the most powerful ability to put us in another place and time. Scent is unusually tightly tied to memory. As Mary Karr succinctly puts it in The Art of Memoir:

Smell is the oldest sense — even one-celled animals without spinal cords can smell — and it cues emotional memory like nothing else.

It can also work in the other direction. That is, memories can bring back scents instead of scents triggering the memory. Take for example the case of Julie Myserson, who writes about having the vivid sensation that her deceased mother-in-law is near when she catches a whiff of the woman’s distinctive perfume:

The sense of smell, [Professor Gottfried] says, is our most ancient, primal sense and has “intimate and direct control over emotional and behavioral states.”

“This is especially true for personal, meaningful memories that tend to get stamped into our brains very robustly,” he explains. “Thus it is possible that a seemingly random trigger or thought — perhaps even outside your conscious awareness — has triggered some aspect of your mother-in-law memory.” In some ways, he says, “it is true that your mother-in-law is ‘visiting’ you, to the extent that your memory of her is strong, and that the vividness of her perfume makes it seem like she is there.”

We instinctively know this. It’s one reason why we can empathize with the people who snuggle a loved one’s worn shirt when that person is gone. It’s also why I was sad to read a list of smells that are disappearing as we phase out old technologies in favor of newer ones. Future generations won’t know the smell of the yellow pages riffed open or of a new car. Already, people younger than me might not know the smell of Polaroid film or a mimeo machine (never mind the sight of its weird purple ink). It will be strange to think one day that some of the smells that make up the tapestry of memory are just gone.

We can use the power of smell to help with behavior change, too. For example, by pairing distinctive scents such as a massage oil or candle with relaxing rituals, we can give that odor the power to help us manage stress and make our homes feel homey. Supposedly, some smells can also assist with weight loss, although I’ve never personally had such luck.

What smells are most evocative for you? Where do your favorite scents take you in your memory?