Smells and Memory Recall and how it works

Smells and Memory: One whiff of cotton candy and you’ll be seeing one of these. 

We’ve discussed the role of food in family traditions and childhood memories. Part of that importance stems from the relationship between smells and memory —the olfactory sense’s role in memory recall.

Smells and Memory Recall

Think how the smell of cotton candy can take your mind back to the fair grounds of your youth. Likewise, the aroma of baking of biscuits can take you back to your grandmother’s kitchen. The connection between smells and memory recall is undeniable. Memories float to the surface on wings of these wafts of scent.

Another example for those of a certain age is the smell of memeographed paper.  Remember those purple sheets ? What else? Suddenly an image of a classroom takes form.

Smells and Memory Cotton candy stand

Smells and Memory: One whiff of cotton candy and you’ll be seeing one of these.

The scientific name for this sudden, vivid recall of “especially old” and “emotional” memories is Proust’s phenomenon.[i]  A study by S. Chu and J.J. Downes which compared the memory recall elicited by verbal cues to those elicited by smells. They found that the smell-cued memories are older. This means that the olfactory context is particularly important in the storage of memories when we are very young. [ii] Perhaps that’s why smells and memories of our childhood are so interdependent.

Sensory Context and Memory Retrieval

If you like neuroscience (and who doesn’t?), it gets even cooler. Given that smell has such a strong significance in memory storage,  it would be logical to assume these “olfactory memories” would be stored in a specific region of the brain. Logical maybe, but incorrect.

Dr. Jay Gottfried and his fellow researchers at UCLA have found this is not the case. He explains, “… memory is distributed across different areas [of the brain] and can be re-awakened through just one of our sensory channels.”[iii]

This not only facilitates recall, but helps us recall complete stories with a depth of sensory detail. Dr. Gottfried explains, “For example, let’s say you spent an enjoyable evening in a nice restaurant and ate a delicious steak. Now, if the memory of this evening was packaged into a single area of the brain, then major aspects of the original evening might have to be recreated to reactivate the memory successfully.”[iv]

In other words, you’d have to recreate the ambiance of the restaurant, the festive feeling of going there, the taste of the steak, etc. , to pull the complete memory together if all those components of that night were stored in discrete areas of the brain.

Luckily, because the storage of memories involves different parts of the brain, hearing the song of a special romantic night can bring back a full onslaught of sensory impressions, including the feel of your arms linked together, the chill of the air, and the smell and taste of that fabulous steak.

What does this mean to those of us trying to preserve memories?

Understanding the relationship between smells and memories can help us recall the memories we want to share.

Smells and memories from and old wood stove

Those times in which we are surrounded by the delicious scents of yesteryear are perfect opportunities to make notes about  memories, reminisce with loved ones, and bask in the remembrance of the “good old days.” It also means we can simply enjoy the nostalgia as we eat the cookies and cakes of our childhood, drink hot cider, and roast marshmallows.

Your Turn

Smells and Memory Recall how it works pinnableWhich smells and memories are intertwined in your brain? What reminiscences come to mind as you think on the scents of the past?

[i] Simon Chu and John J. Downes, “Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena,” Chemical Senses, 25, (2000) 111-116,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] University College London, “Remembrance Of Smells Past: How The Brain Stores Those Meaningful Memories.” ScienceDaily, May 27, 2004,

[iv] Ibid.

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