Recently, we’ve been chatting about the smells that we link with our childhood: nutmeg in rice pudding, lavender in Granny’s cupboard, the incomparable waft of vanilla on baking day. I remembered walking past our local bakery and being stopped in my tracks by the rich aromas of ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon with a top note of cloves that drifted from the doorway. I was instantly transported back to my childhood, when I spent time in my gran’s kitchen, watching her bake gingerbread. I could hear her voice, see her red-checked curtains at the window and, above all, feel my mouth watering as I waited for the loaf to cool. What is it about smells that they have the power to unlock such powerful, deep-seated memories?

apple pie

Nostalgic smells vary. For you, a fragrant slice of hot apple pie could evoke a fond memory of your childhood.

What is smell?

Well, once I’d come back to earth, a little research revealed the following information:

  • Smell is the oldest of our senses
  • Even bacteria respond to smells
  • Whereas sight relies on four kinds of light sensors in the human eye, there are 1000-plus different types of smell receptors that regenerate throughout our lives and change according to what we are used to smelling
  • We can identify a whole lot of smells, even if we’re not able to describe them precisely
  • Some smells warn us away from things that are dangerous; others draw us in because they are so appealing

In the brain, smells are processed in the ‘olfactory bulb’, which lies beside a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus, curled deep inside the brain, is described by BBC science writer Tom Stafford as ‘a convergence point for information arriving from all over the rest of the cortex’. This is where experiences are encoded and new memories are created and stored. When the hippocampus is damaged, the ability to identify smells is actually impaired.

So those smells that drifted from the bakery alerted the complex smell receptors in my nasal passages and triggered a memory that took me straight back to my gran’s kitchen and that now-cooling gingerbread. Other memories about my gran tumbled to the fore and I found myself reliving experiences from that time. Smells spark memories and emotions in us all.

What smells are most likely to spark memories?

A recent study of 2000 people, commissioned rather surprisingly by Disneyland Paris, listed the top 40 scents that brought back memories of schooldays, holidays and loved ones. Chalk, sun cream, bubblegum, fish and chips, freshly mown grass, candyfloss and rain on hot tarmac were, perhaps predictably, among the most evocative smells. Professor Barry Smith, a sensory expert who worked on the Disneyland Paris study, said: ‘More than any other sense, smell can evoke powerful, emotional memories. Whole scenes of people, places and things can be brought back to life by the mere hint of a long forgotten scent.’

For many of the participants, the smell of cinnamon brought back memories of childhood Christmases. Fragrant cinnamon is also associated with Easter and those deliciously raisin-filled hot cross buns, so there’s a definite link between cinnamon and celebration. According to Professor Smith, ‘The top 40 scents show a wide array of things that awaken our senses and stay with us for the rest of our lives.’

Feel-good fragrances

Aside from their memory-inducing powers, scents can also have an amazing effect on our mind and body. From stress relief to headache relief, certain aromas have a way of making an impact (and positively so). We all know that lavender calms the mind and helps us to relax. But did you know that the smell of cinnamon is said to boost your brainpower? Researchers from Wheeling Jesuit University in the US discovered that students who sniffed cinnamon showed improved cognitive functions such as visual–motor response, working memory and attention span – read more here. Also read ‘Fragrant flashbacks: senses rouse early memories’, by Helen Fields of the Association for Psychological Science for some interesting facts. The Disneyland Paris-commissioned study of the top 40 nostalgic smells is reported in The Daily Mail.

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Acknowledgements & Photo credits

  1. Photo of apple pie courtesy of KEKO61 /