• October 10, 2023
  • written by Madewell

The Psychology of Scent: Why Fragrances Can Evoke Memories

One of the strongest smells for many is that of petrichor, which is commonly smelt after a rainstorm. Another is fresh-cut grass after someone nearby has mowed their lawn. However, many smells are very individual. Maybe the smell of garlic fries reminds you of a special day at a baseball game that you had with […]

One of the strongest smells for many is that of petrichor, which is commonly smelt after a rainstorm. Another is fresh-cut grass after someone nearby has mowed their lawn.

However, many smells are very individual. Maybe the smell of garlic fries reminds you of a special day at a baseball game that you had with a close friend, or perhaps that smell causes you to remember many separate but similar happy moments at that stadium. And, of course, there is the fragrance of a person, which can immediately bring them to mind.

Numerous businesses use the power of scent and memory to improve their bottom lines. A couple of famous examples include Cinnabon’s famous cinnamon rolls and Starbucks’ even more known coffee. In fact, Cinnabon bakeries are often intentionally placed away from a mall’s food court so that their smells stand out more. Those types of fragrances tend to immediately bring to mind memories of you consuming those products as well as, more importantly, the emotions that you were feeling at those times.

And there is cooking that has more of a personal connection: the smells that you experienced when you were being prepared meals while growing up. So many of our strongest childhood memories are related to food and, more to the point, how it smelled. That is why if, as an adult, you return and are made the same types of dishes that you ate as a child, so many of those childhood memories will flood back.

Simply put, smelling something that reminds us of an aspect of our past will often recreate that experience in our minds so vividly that it will be like we are experiencing that event again in the present.

Origins of Scent

Of course, humans have had scent for millions of years, but the psychology of scent and how fragrances and other types of smells can evoke memories has only been recently discovered, a little more than 100 years ago.

Marcel Proust wrote a section in his 1913 novel, “A la recherche du temps perdu” (“In search of lost time”), which is believed to be the first mention of how a smell – the combined smell of tea and cake in his case – triggered vivid memories from his childhood as he relived where he had grown up and the streets, gardens and squares where he had spent so much of his time.

When the same thing, having a fragrance bring the past vividly to life today, happens to you, you are experiencing a Proustian moment.

Science of Smell

Perhaps related to how significant an element of our lives smell is, it is the only sense of ours that is fully developed when we are still in the womb, and it remains our most developed one until around the age of 10; at that time, sight becomes more developed.

The first essential scientific element of the smelling experience is the olfactory bulb’s role. This is the part of the brain that takes in the fragrances that have entered your nose and all information possible related to them. People who do not have this are anosmic, meaning that they cannot smell anything.

The parts of the brain that then interpret those smells are the hippocampus and amygdala, which are both located in your temporal lobes. The hippocampus helps you connect separate events, such as a fragrance that you are smelling now and what occurred when you had smelled it in the past. The amygdala processes emotions, which is what makes doing so such an emotional experience in so many cases.

In other words, when your brain goes to process what you are smelling, it is using the same areas that it does to process your memories and past and present emotions. That is why fragrances create such a strong emotional connection to our related memories.

Another reason why fragrances create these strong emotional reactions is because smell is the only sense that is processed in this part of the brain.

All of this is also why fragrances trigger more vivid memories than pictures do. Consider a study that Silvia Alava had conducted, “Smells and Emotions,” which found that people tend to remember 35% of the smells that their noses take in but only 5% of what their eyes have seen.

Also of note is that the types of emotions that smells trigger are generally more positive ones. When this is the case, our stress and inflammation levels are reduced, and our physical and mental states improve.

Psychology of Fragrances

There are several ways that fragrances can be intentionally utilized in a psychological sense.

Perhaps you are a student and have a test coming up. Consider this way how fragrances can evoke memories. If you use the same fragrance both when you are studying and while you are taking the test, you are more likely to remember what you studied.

Or perhaps you have undergone a mentally challenging time, such as the ending of a years-long relationship. In that case, one or more smells may bring back not-so-positive memories, and you may not want to remember those. Instead, you should consider essentially rebooting your scent to create new, presumably happier, memories.

This happens because when you use a new fragrance, you are wearing one that your mind has not yet associated with any memories or emotions, allowing you the ability to create new ones that will help you move on from those negative emotions that may be connected with fragrances that you had used in the past.

Another important psychological element of fragrances is that we tend to judge people based on how they smell. In other words, we tend to perceive people’s personalities differently based on the fragrances that they are wearing when we are interacting with them. And, when we think back on when we met someone, how they smelled will oftentimes be at the forefront of our minds.

Of course, all of this should also be considered from the opposite perspective. For example, you should ensure that any cologne or perfume that you are wearing will result in you being perceived and judged how you want to be.

One important thing to take into account when considering which fragrances to use is that the ones that are most noticeable are those that are not smelt as frequently. In other words, if you want to stand out, selecting a fragrance that is unique is the best way to allow you to do so, thanks to the close connection that exists between perfume and memory and between cologne and memory.


  • Why do perfumes bring back memories?