Wise-up Wednesday: Oh. That. Smell!


Smell, more so than any other sense, is intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion and associative learning. A smell can trigger a floodgate of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect purchases. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it is sometimes called the “emotional brain.”  Use this phenomenon to your advantage as a memory hook by creating conditioned responses.

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. However, smells only trigger memories with conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chocolate chip cookies with Grandma Joan or particular cleaning agents to a hospital or clinic.  When you meet up with the smell again, the link is already formed on your brain and is ready to elicit a memory and/or a mood.  The cookies make you feel happy because you love Grandma Joan, the cleaning agent may remind you of the pain you were in when you went to the ER in 2004.

Oh. That. Smell!

Researchers have found that cognition significantly influences the perception of smell.  A psychologist at the University of Oxford labeled an ambiguous Brie-like scent as either “cheddar cheese” or “body odor.” Test subjects rated the odor higher when it was labeled cheddar cheese. MRIs even showed more activity in the olfactory region of the brain when subjects believed they were smelling cheese. [Scientific American]

“The human sense of smell has long been maligned — its sensitivity is often unfavorably compared to that of animals. Smell even came in dead last in a HowStuffWorks battle of favorite senses.” (1)

Memory Scents

Positive associations are best for recall.  After all, your brain much prefers a positive experience, while it may repress a negative one. So when creating a conditioned response, or memory hook, associate the event with something that smells good to you and spend a few extra seconds “smelling the roses” so to speak.  The next time you experience the same scent you will be transported to your memory hook via your conditioned response.

May your week be simply scentsational!

(1) http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/smell2.htm


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