Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Persistance of Our Olfactory Memories

As I was leaving Wal-Mart this afternoon, the thought came to my head that the entrance smelled like my Bigmother's (maternal grandmother) house. It was the smell of bath powder and maybe some other unknown fragrance as well. Funny thing how that thought just popped into my head. My Bigmother has been gone for 33 years.

I'm not one of those persons that smells bring up memories very often. So after today's sudden memory and having a curious nature (according to Diahn : ) I decided to look up the reason behind this experience.

The olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area closely associated with memory and feeling. It has access to the amygdala, where emotion is processed, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning.

As small children, we learn to associate smells with specific emotional responses to people, places or events, otherwise known as conditioned responses. Because a link is formed in the brain between the smell and the event we associate the same smells with those long past memories.

Higher level processing of olfactory information is done by the olfactory cortex. This is where we process the specific memories associated with smells. Only two synapses separate the olfactory nerve from the amygdala. Three synapses separate the olfactory nerve and the hippocampus.

Smells can also elicit feelings of welling being in us. These are some smells that I have warm fuzzy feelings about: the smell of freshly mown grass, the way dirt smells before the rain, that baby oil/powder smell of little babies, cinnamon rolls baking and the pungent smell of good cheese. One evening last week, I drove home with the windows down along a road that had an abundance of wisteria blooming in the trees. Mmmmmm, the smell was heavenly.

Some of my least favorite smells are playdoh, paperwhites ( too strong!), turnip greens cooking (although I like to eat them), cabbage cooking and burning leaves. Some of the worst smells are critters that die in the wall forcing you to live with the odor until they decompose (yuck I know but tell me it's never happened in your house), passing too close to a paper mill (stinks to high heaven if you've never experienced that one) and stinky feet.


  1. oh yes...the papermill - there is one near here and when the wind is right - it's oh so wrong.

    i would add to loved smells, peppers and onions cooking together (reminds me of thanksgiving), honeysuckle in the summer, and freshly laundered towels and sheets

  2. I enjoyed reading your explanation and it reminded me of one remembrance I have that has never left after about 70 years.

    My baby sister died when I was about 6 years old. In those days her little body was bathed and then thoroughly cleansed with rubbing alcohol. The burial took place the following day.

    The peculiar part of this remembrance to me is that after working in nursing, giving my own Vitamin B 12 injections for 25 years, and doing many things with it I still think of her each time I smell rubbing alcohol.

    Interesting connection. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

  3. I was reminded this weekend of my Mother when I walked in and smelled sauerkraut and short ribs cooking. That wonderful smell when walking into the house after school knowing we would have a tummy filling dinner.

  4. Now, see - when I smell a paper mill, it just smells like we're almost to my grandparents house and I'm suddenly 6 years old again and so excited...

    so, strangely - it's a good smell to me, even though it's not a good smell... :)

    Way to research, curious one!

  5. stinky feet...oh yea...I live with 5 men. Believe me, I know this one well. hee!

    Love the smell of true!

  6. Hey, now this was just plain INTERESTING! Very cool facts.

    I lost my sense of smell about two years ago and I miss it so...even the stinky feet smell! BUT, every GREAT once in awhile God blesses me with a "whiff" of something and it just makes me smile!!!!

  7. Funny about sonic booms.

    Smell memories - interesting thoughts. I can't stand the smell of grocery store bakeries. I spent a summer working in one (an unpleasant summer to say the least), so that smell makes me sick!

    I do like the smell of spring rain, hyacinths, warm sweet vanilla...

  8. Very interesting post but I'm surprised to hear that burning leaves and playdoh are among your least favourites.

  9. Great post, I love anything about scientific facts.;)
    Smells are very much bringing back memories for me and in fact I posted about scents and fragrances once.;) I am very perceptive and am completely ruled by my emotions, thus sounds and scents are very important to me.;))
    Have a lovely Friday,

  10. Thanks for the olfactory lesson Steviewren, and of the sonic boom in your previous blog. By golly, we learn a lot from reading friend's blogs! Thanks. - Dave

  11. Never had a critter die in a wall, thank goodness .. stinky feet are the worst offenders ever ... ewww... and there's a mens cologne I dont know the name of but when I smell it I am back in the Ogden Theatre as a maybe 10 yr old not wanting to sit next to this man who insisted I could sit on his lap ..

  12. I am one of the fortunate ones that never had a creature die in my wall :-)

    Papermills are bad and so are dog food factories (one thar I've smelled is just outside of Denver) and farm silage in summer...whew!
    There used to be garbage dump landfills in NYC that were so full of methane gas they could knock you out! Thanks goodness the EPA came and capped them.

    I love the scent of roses, lavender, cinnamon, ceder and pine. Anyhting floral and woodsy.

  13. Very informative and interesting post. It reminded me of my first year at junior school (and that was not today or yesterday). We used to have to polish the wooden floor every friday by dancing "The Twist" with a rag under our feet. I hated the dancing - felt like a cissy, but the smell of the polish is still in my nostrils.

  14. Olfactory memories are supposed to be much stronger than any other...I have to agree with you on the paperwhites...some lilies are way too strong odored too...I hate the smell of microwave popcorn...usually burnt...and altho I love fish I hate smelling it in the kitchen the next day...

    One of my favorite smells is of fresh laundry dried outside...and fresh basil...

  15. Great post! I lurve the smells in Monterey! There of course is the ocean, the fish, the seaweed... then the shops, chocolate, candies, restaurants, coffee houses, etc. it's a wonderful memory when ever I smell something that reminds me of my favorite place to escape to!

  16. I'm told my feet don't stink... I know! Because I use foot powder every morning.. hee hee..
    :) The Bach

  17. I had much the same experience you had. I was enjoying the scents of some homemade soap in a shop and all a sudden I was "with" my paternal grandfather in my mind.

    The scent?

    Bay rum. His aftershave apparently.

    Grandpa died about 40 years ago...

  18. smells often trigger memories for me and i love the sensation when it happens. i've spent so much time at my folks house lately with my dad so ill and i've been amazed by the memories that both smell and location have brought back to me.


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