by Sarah Thomas

Your favorite cookies baking in the kitchen smell like love and the comforts of home.

Cake, melting wax, and lingering smoke from freshly blown-out birthday candles smell like celebration and joy from birthdays past.

Pine needles, peppermint, spices, and citrus smell like Christmas, tradition, and nostalgia for happy times spent with family.

Sauerkraut in a slow cooker smells like your Mom forgot to pick you up from band practice and you got stuck waiting at the house of a classmate you hardly knew and haven’t spoken with since.

Maybe that last one is just me.

While your childhood might smell different from my childhood, nothing brings the past to the present quite like smell.

Memories and emotions are all tangled up with the smells of our past, more so than any of the other senses. If the smell of crayons and tempera paint instantly take you back to kindergarten, you have experienced odor-evoked autobiographical memory (or smell memories for people like me).

This is also referred to as the Proust effect, named after a passage from a book by the French writer Marcel Proust. In the novel, a character vividly recalls long-forgotten memories of his childhood after smelling a tea-soaked madeleine cookie.

Why does our sense of smell trigger childhood memories and emotions differently than all the other senses? It has to do with the structure of our brain, and more specifically, the fact that the olfactory bulb is a close neighbor to the limbic system.

The limbic system is responsible for emotions and the formation and storage of memories and consists of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala.

When you smell something, receptors in your nose send a signal to your brain. Instead of traveling to the thalamus for processing like all of your other senses, the signal is sent to your olfactory bulb near the base of your brain. And since it is nestled between the hippocampus and amygdala, smells make close friends with memories and emotions. You might even say they are inseparable.

This is probably an appropriate place to pause - to stop and smell the roses, so to speak - and marvel at our brain’s astounding capacity. Our brain is capable of cataloging more smells than we have words to identify!

As amazing as it is, there are times when the wires cross and you get some weird interpretations of the information. I can’t eat peach yogurt because my brain truly believes it tastes like B.O. Honestly, I have never tasted B.O., but try telling that to my brain.

I remember in high school when a coworker confessed with a modest amount of shame that she had chicken noodle soup B.O. I laughed because I had no idea what she was talking about, until I got a whiff of her body odor. And now when I smell chicken noodle soup, I laugh again and picture distinctly that conversation taking place even though it was not a significant event in my life.

Memories triggered by smells tend to be more vivid than memories triggered by the other senses, are usually from our early years, and are often memories we would not have recalled without the smell trigger. Smell memories are like time travel to your childhood.

It is interesting to note that smell memory is associated with the perceptual rather than the conceptual. This means you’ll remember the feelings and emotions you had at the time you made the association, not necessarily the specifics.

For example, the smell of Rosemilk lotion your grandma used might transport you to the days you spent as a child at Grandma’s house and you’ll enjoy the pleasant feeling and love you felt when you were with your Grandma, but it won’t help you remember her middle name or her anniversary.

Can you use smell memory to help you study for a test? Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Unless the test is on your emotional perception of the memories from your childhood evoked by smells. Usually, tests are designed to deal with concepts and facts, not emotions.

There are however, many powerful and positive psychological effects that we enjoy by getting nostalgic about smells. Smells help us feel rooted and tell the stories of our lives.

Seeking out the smells from our past can help us feel belonging and connection to home and loved ones, bolster our self-esteem and feelings of optimism, and make meaningful associations. The comforts we recall from smells can even reduce stress and anxiety.

For as long as I can remember, my Dad used the same hairbrush. It was a manly looking brush, and unlike the brushes my sisters and I would use. It was made of a slightly translucent matte brown plastic with ribbons of darker brown swirls and had black bristles. The weight of it in your hand somehow seemed masculine.

I remember the day my Dad died, watching my sister pick up that hairbrush, hold it close to her nose, and inhale the very essence of my Dad for the last time. Her face revealed all the emotion evoked by the smell of the hairbrush - the unconditional love, the sweetness, the bear hugs, and the feeling our Dad gave every one of his kids that they were secretly his favorite.

Smell memories are powerful. When you smell good, the memories are good.

Body odor can be a distraction and a barrier from the things in life that matter most, like creating meaningful memories and connections with the important people in your life.

Lume Deodorant was developed by Dr. Shannon Klingman as a solution for all external body odor, because she saw first hand how body odor could erode her patients’ confidence and feelings of self-worth.

There are many ways you want to be remembered by the people you love, but smelling bad isn’t one of them. So bake the cookies, give long hugs, snuggle up with your best people, and make some great smelling memories.

What will be your scent legacy?
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas