How Do Smells Trigger Emotions?

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By Natalie Stamper, Psy.D

Smell is perhaps the most mysterious out of the six senses. It has proven crucial to human survival throughout the ages and has definite links in emotion and memory. Recalling specific memories is difficult based on smell alone, especially with more obscure scents picked up at seemingly unrelated times and locations. Regardless of one’s ability to trace memories with smell alone, the emotions associated with them are real.

The power of smell is more prominent in our lives than one may think.
Most of us are well aware of the connection between our sense of smell and ability to recall emotions. This can happen by stumbling upon a similar smell by chance or through mediums such as perfume to enforce emotions linked to memories where the scent was present (Bergland). For example, the aroma of certain foods from childhood can bring back memories of home or loved ones. The smell of familiar scents can help place us in a specific mood.

The amygdala, the area in the brain where emotions are processed, and the hippocampus where memories are formed, are closely linked with where the brain processes smell, or the olfactory bulbs (Saplakoglu). Emotions aid in telling us to avoid or approach certain things, a familiar trait in our sense of smell. Understanding the chemical processes that occur when we pick up certain odors is important in dealing with memory and emotion in context.

It is easy to forget the strong role smell plays in our feelings, but it can be a helpful tool to get in a certain mindset thanks to the memories associated with certain scents. Things like perfume and incense are not only capable of bringing about pleasant scents but can also shift our mood and help us relax. When smelled at a specific time, scents tend to place people in the same emotion they felt when they smelled it the first time. For some, the human sense of smell can be hard to describe and tends to bring out more raw emotions due to the vivid yet mysterious sensation smelling things can induce. So, let’s make sure to stop and smell the roses every once in a while!


References

Bergland, Christopher. “How Does Scent Drive Human Behavior?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 29 June 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/
blog/the-athletes-way/201506/
how-does-scent-drive-human-behavior
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Saplakoglu, Yasemin. “Why Do Smells Trigger Strong Memories?” LiveScience, Purch, 8 Dec. 2019, www.livescience.com/why-smells-trigger-memories.html.

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