Olfactory memory, why is it so evocative?

Olfactory memory, why is it so evocative?

Our workday ends. We return home at 2:00 p.m. We always go on foot. The journey is short, no more than ten minutes. We walk quietly when, suddenly, we perceive a smell with which a deceased relative automatically appears in our mind. The impact is so strong that we can even be surprised and be stunned for a few seconds. Although it seems one of the least addressed senses, it is proving that the olfactory memory is one of those that leave a deeper and lasting imprint.

Throughout the article, the reason for the relationship between smell and memory will be investigated. The brain structures involved and how this association process is carried out will be addressed. Who has not ever been surprised by a strong memory through a particular smell? Maybe a perfume, a plate of food, a specific place ... There are smells that marked our childhood and that, over the years, without knowing it, are there engraved on fire waiting for the right stimulus to evoke a distant memory.


  • 1 Olfactory memory, what happens in our mind?
  • 2 A powerful partnership
  • 3 Olfactory memory step by step

Olfactory memory, what happens in our mind?

Olfactory memory is one of the most peculiar for its strong ability to evoke memories. When we see a photo we can remember many moments of our life. The same happens when we touch something that was from a relative or a very special gift. However, smell stands out for great emotional potential. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, so when we smell a perfume, a meal, or anything else that evokes a memory, a strong emotional reaction occurs.

The limbic system is a set of brain structures related to emotions and memory. When we fall in love and feel "butterflies" in the stomach, we can say that our limbic system has been activated. Thus, smell, being between memory and emotions, produces a strong association between smell and context. However, it can be said that these processes are unconscious. What do we mean by this?

As children we usually associate a perfume with our parents, or our grandparents, as well as a favorite meal. Other people, every time they smell a certain incense, remind them when they saw the thrones as children when they were Easter. To other people, the smell of the sea reminds them of their childhood beach vacation. They are associations that occur through our experiences without knowing that in the future, once again smelling the same stimulus, it will evoke us to a moment or moments of the past.

A powerful partnership

The tonsil and the hippocampus are important structures in this association. On the one hand, the amygdala is responsible for processing emotions, and on the other hand, the hippocampus is related to associative learning. As the Bello-Medina (2018) team states in a review article, "The hippocampus plays a very important role in various brain processes such as spatial location, emotional information processing and learning and memory". The olfactory bulb has access to both structures, so through these the smell-emotion association is created.

In this way, you can also explain why some people prefer some odors to others. If at the time of smelling a particular stimulus our situation was negative, it is possible that if in the future we smell the same stimulus, we feel regular. On the other hand, if we had a family member who always wore a specific perfume and was a person that made us happy and liked his presence; Over the years, when you smell that perfume again, you can evoke a pleasant emotional state.

So that, A smell not only brings a memory to mind, but is also capable of producing a mood. Who has not had a pleasant experience when smelling certain perfume? Who has not remembered an event of his childhood that he did not even remember when he smelled, for example, a plate of food? This emotional imprint associated with memory is the key in this very high association process.

Olfactory memory step by step

The process of associating a smell with a memory and emotion is composed of different sequences.

  1. Perception. First, through the sense of smell we perceive a specific external stimulus, in this case, a smell.
  2. Secondly a sensation. As Álvarez del Blanco (2011) states, sensation is the response to stimulation. In this case, as Claudia Gómez (2012) postulates, it consists of a "interpretation and subjective representation that the individual makes of an aroma according to various individual and social or cultural variables that have lived".
  3. Emotion. At this point the emotion is associated with concrete objects.
  4. The association It is another important process. It consists of meaning generated in the mind of the individual in relation to events and situations that occur around you and that are stored in memory.
  5. The imprint, as Rapaille (2007) describes, "It is a combined connection resulting from experience with the corresponding emotion when you first understand or learn a concept or a thing and that generates a mental image or a meaning related to it".
  6. The memory. Finally, the memory is linked to the long lasting memory, So olfactory memory is about long-term memory.

What better than an example to explain the process. Imagine that when we were little we always helped our father cut the grass. First we perceive the smell freshly cut grass, smell that causes us a sensation. This sensation produces a emotion It depends on the context. If we like to help our father, the emotion may be positive. However, if we see the experience as an ordeal and something negative, the smell could cause us an emotion of rage.

Once the emotion is provoked, the association, in this case it could be the smell of grass with the emotion of well-being, fun and happiness. After the association the imprint. What is the difference between association and imprint? The association consists in establishing the relationship between smell and emotion and the imprint would be the union of both from which the odorous stimulus will elicit the emotion. In other words, the imprint would be equivalent to the imprint that this association would leave us in memory. And finally, this emotion will be provoked through memory when in the future we smell the freshly cut grass again.


  • Álvarez del Blanco, R. (2011). Perfect Fusion: Neuromarketing. Spain: Prentice
  • Bello-Medina, P ,. González, D. and Medina, A. (2018). The hippocampus: history, structure and function. Scientific Bulletin of Tepeji del Río High School, 10, 58-61.
  • Gómez, C. (2012). The olfactory identity: an invisible and silent strategy.Virtual magazine Universidad Católica del Norte, 37, 156-179.
  • Rapaille, C. (2007).The Cultural Code. Bogotá: Norma Publishing Group.