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Notes of Nostalgia: Why certain smells can trigger memories

March 22, 2022
4 min read

Smell is the most powerful sense for triggering memories and evoking emotions, and the reason is to do with our brain’s anatomy.

You might have a favourite photo that brings back fond memories when you look at it. Or perhaps you listen to a certain song and feel emotional. Our senses often pick up on familiarities from the past, bringing a specific memory or emotion to mind - but thanks to the way our brains are wired, our sense of smell is the most powerful at doing so.

Maybe when you were little, you helped your granny to make cinnamon biscuits during the summer holidays. Years later, when you walk past a bakery that has cinnamon biscuits fresh out of the oven, you are instantly taken back to those happy times that you spent with your granny in her kitchen. The brain is picking up that familiar scent and bringing those memories to the forefront. But, why?

Why do we associate a smell with a memory?

Odours are processed by our brain’s olfactory bulb, which has a direct connection with the limbic system - that’s the area of the brain that houses memory and emotion.

Scent, emotion and memory are intertwined within the makeup of our brain - known as the Proust Effect. What makes our sense of smell so good at doing this is its connection with the limbic system, which our other senses don’t pass through. Our senses of sight, sound and touch are processed differently and therefore don’t deliver the same intensity of nostalgia.

How does our brain process scent?

When we smell a scent, molecules enter our nostrils and bind to receptors on tiny hairs of the olfactory epithelium - that’s tissue within our noses.

An electrical signal is then sent to the olfactory bulb in our brain, which is then passed to the limbic system. This all happens within lightning speed, with the brain developing a link between the scent and the memory.

It’s common that this process will trigger memories from our youth, as the link between scent and memory is hardwired in our brain at the point when we first encounter the scent.

This doesn’t happen for every scent and memory though, which is what makes the phenomenon so special. If we are in a pleasant situation, the scents present at the time help to cement the neuro-pathways of the brain. Each time the scent is present with a similar pleasant situation, the pathway deepens and the memory is planted deeply in the brain. The memories can then kick in when the scent is present years later, triggering what is known as an odour-evoked autobiographical memory.

Sometimes we’re introduced to a new scent later on in our lives, during adulthood, and the same process can be experienced. One of our customers, Kirsten, recently shared how she experienced this phenomenon when she used our mini face oil.

After experiencing a traumatic birth of her first child, Kirsten was doing all she could to prepare for the birth of her second. Looking for ways to make the second birth more comfortable, she bought our mini face oil as a pampering treat for her hospital bag. Unknowingly linking the scent of the oil with the memory of using it in the hospital, she found the oil to massively help protect her skin whilst exposed to the hot and dry conditions at the hospital. The second birth was a healing and positive experience and she continued to use our mini face oil to look after her skin post-birth. The flashback moment occurred when she used the oil for the first time since the hospital visit, bringing her right back to her time in hospital, snuggling her precious newborn.

Kirsten said: “My nightly face routine is now something that I cherish.”

With a blend of Jojoba, Argan, Olive Squalane, Pumpkin and Raspberry seed oils, as well as a signature blend of aromatic essential oils, our facial oil is a 100% natural skincare essential with a calming scent. It’s the hero product of a vegan and cruelty-free skincare routine that will improve the health of your skin and leave it feeling soft and supple.

We love hearing your feedback and many customers have commented on the relaxing aroma of our award-winning facial oil. See what customer, Emily, had to say:

"I can’t get enough of this facial oil, and my skin loves it as much as I do. I struggle with acne prone skin and this oil has been an absolute game changer. Not only does it smell like a spa, over the last year it has helped completely clear my skin."

Discover how to use facial oil as part of your natural skincare routine and how it can benefit your skin type.

Have you ever smelled a certain scent and experienced a powerful memory that until then was long forgotten? We’d love to hear your story.

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Natural skincare brand Amaranthine's founder, Sarah Rueger.

Sarah Rueger

About the author

Sarah is the founder of certified palm oil free natural skincare brand Amaranthine. She is a qualified organic skincare formulator and has diplomas in Beauty Therapy and Clinical Aromatherapy.