If you ask the world’s top perfumers which specific scents resurrect powerful memories, they’re likely to speak of their childhood. For Oliver Creed, a sixth-generation master perfumer with the House of Creed, the scent of jasmine evokes early years with his family. “I knew perfume making was my calling,” he says. “My earliest scent memory was with my father when we were visiting the south of France—the fields of roses and jasmine.” Likewise, for Alberto Morillas, the master perfumer of Mizensir, certain flowers bring back family memories of days under the blue skies of his native Seville, Spain. “I smell jasmine—for me, it’s orange jasmine flower—and that’s my memory,” he says.
But you don’t need to be a professional to identify with scent memory and nostalgia. Almost everyone has had that Proustian experience of smelling something—a familiar perfume, the scent of onions sizzling in butter, a whiff of lavender—and being immediately transported to a past experience. These moments when scent and memory meet are typically more intense than, say, remembering what you did last month; they evoke a physical, emotional sense of being there again.
Here’s why some smells can feel so “alive” to us. Scientists believe that we intensely associate certain scents with specific memories due to the structure of our brain anatomy. Olfactory signals—aka the “messages” your nose sends to your brain—are positioned near the limbic system, the control center for human memory and emotion.
This scent-memory association is powerfully linked to our formative years, says neuroscientist Rachel Herz, PhD, a leading researcher on the psychological science of smell and the author of The Scent of Desire. “Our first association with a scent is what matters most, especially in the case of direct personal experiences,” she explains. “This is because, due to neural coding, the first association that we form with a scent is most tightly bonded to the scent and is very hard to rewrite.”
“Our first association with a scent is what matters most.” —Rachel Herz, PhD
Unwittingly, unconsciously, all of us have trained our brains to link scents with specific—and, often, long-buried—memories. That’s why the perfumers, who regularly interact with floral molecules as part of their work, still think of childhood experiences with jasmine. “Almost all our responses and emotional reactions to scents are learned. They are not innate,” Dr. Herz says. “This is why many people don’t have the same responses to a scent. How we respond to a scent depends on how we have learned the meaning of the scent.”
“So if you were in a very positive situation when you smelled skunk for the first time you are most likely to perceive skunk as a (very) pleasant scent,” she continues. “Likewise, if you were in a very negative emotional state when you first smelled roses it would have a negative meaning for you, and you would dislike it. For example, someone once told me that the first time she ever smelled roses was at her mother’s funeral and she hated the smell of roses.”
Recent research suggests that someday, this relationship between odor and emotion could be used therapeutically. For instance, researchers have observed that certain scents trigger unpleasant memories among people with PTSD; some scientists theorize that in the future, odors may be used strategically to help people heal from past trauma. In another study, people with mild Alzheimer’s disease were able to recall personal memories more quickly after being exposed to a scent. There’s even some evidence that being exposed to odors during sleep may help the brain commit new knowledge to memory.
In the here and now, though, most of us will be sniffing, remembering, and starting the cycle anew. “Most of our first associations with scents, and with everything, come from childhood because that’s when everything is new to us,” Dr. Herz says. “But anytime in life when you come across a new fragrance, the emotional meaning and response you have to it will be created as a function of the experience, emotions, and meaning of that scent to you in that moment.” In other words, it’s never too late to start creating new memories. Just follow your nose.