It seems to happen when you least expect it: You pass a woman on the street who's wearing the same perfume your grandmother used, and you're taken back to being 8 years old and watching her put on makeup in her bedroom. Or you enter a bakery and the aroma of freshly made sourdough bread transports you to the kitchen in your childhood home, where your dad is cutting into a loaf.
You already know how certain smells can instantly call up long-forgotten memories, but you may not realize that there's a scientific reason behind the phenomenon. "The part of the brain that processes odors, which is called the olfactory cortex, is located very close to the hippocampus and amygdala -- two areas that are involved in storing emotional memories," says Pamela Dalton, an odor researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "So when you breathe in salty ocean air with a hint of sunscreen in it, that whole section of your brain gets kick-started, which helps explain why you immediately flash back to the beach house your family went to every summer when you were younger."
The Scent-Memory Connection
In fact, a Swedish study found that smells unearth earlier memories better than any other type of cue. Researchers exposed elderly people to a word, picture or odor and asked them to identify their earliest memory connected to the prompt. While the word and picture brought up moments from early adulthood, the smell led them to think of a time before they were 10 years old.
And because their power transports you back to the carefree days of childhood, Dalton says scents can be useful for helping you feel less stress or anxiety. "People don't realize how easy it is to change your mood by purposefully smelling something associated with a time in your life when you felt happy," she says." For example, try keeping a little vial of your mom's favorite perfume in your purse or at your desk to take a whiff of when you feel overwhelmed or upset. The effect is instantaneous."
Create Your Own Comfort
How do you get your own children to connect certain scents with happy memories? Dalton says it's easy; you just have to be consistent. "Apply the same lotion every night before you go in your daughter's room to read her a bedtime story or bake an apple cinnamon pie for every special holiday," she says.
In their minds, those smells will quickly become associated with being nurtured or with festive occasions, and they'll always think of you and their childhood fondly when they get a whiff of it, even decades down the road." You can also use a familiar, soothing smell -- like eucalyptus or lavender -- to ease their stress or discomfort when they're sick or uncomfortable. It makes perfect scents!
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