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The Force of Fragrance

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

A one-second sniff of something can whet your appetite, trigger a memory, change your mood, improve your health — even spark a shopping spree. Family First investigates the power of our olfactory organs.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

As I glumly plough through my usually tasty garlic onion pizza, I muse on the irony of writing an article about the sense of smell precisely when a nasty cold has left me without it! If the lack of it can turn even my pungent garlic onion pizza into a tasteless piece of cardboard, it tells us something about the strength of our sense of smell.


The Anatomy of a Nose

Why is our sense of smell so powerful? If a specialist were to give you a peek inside a body, you could see exactly why a simple odor can trigger a memory or an emotional response.

The olfactory nerve, where our sense of smell is located, leads straight to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes memory. There is an almost direct line to the emotional area of our brains, too: Just two nerve synapses separate the olfactory nerve from the amygdala, which regulates feelings. The pathways to the other senses are, by comparison, much longer.

Research supports this finding, showing that our “smell memories” actually go back further than memories associated with other senses. Studies conducted on elders have shown that visual recall usually goes back to between the ages of fifteen and thirty, but smell-associated memory goes back much further, to early childhood (ages five to ten).

This nose-recollection connection is so strong that, sometimes, a scent can trigger a memory before we’re even conscious of the odor. One woman, who we’ll call Faigy, had such an experience: “I was sitting in shul once when I suddenly felt a terrible wave of homesickness. I was married with kids at the time, but I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want to be a big girl, I just wanted my mom. It was only then that I realized that a woman had walked past me wearing Chanel No. 5, my mother’s perfume.”

Since it so easily triggers the power of recall, can fragrance be used as a memory aid? Educational experts are hoping so. Research has shown that when learning in the presence of a particular aroma, people have much greater recall than those learning without it.


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