Smells like nostalgia: Why do scents bring back memories?

By Meghan Holohan

NBCNews.com

The smell of chlorine wafts through the air. Suddenly, you recall childhood summers spent in a swimming pool. Or maybe it’s a whiff of apple pie, or the scent of the same perfume your mom used to wear. Our noses have a way of sniffing out nostalgia.

“I stepped into an elevator and a bunch of people piled in behind me. I was behind a woman with her back to me, her hair was in my nose, and I could smell the perfume, Shalimar, and I hadn’t smelled it in [years]. It seemed like I was transported back to high school,” says Howard Eichenbaum, director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology at Boston University.

While all the senses are connected with memories, smell in particular sparks a flurry of emotional memories. Why?

After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, which helps the brain process smells. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. As a member of the limbic system, the olfactory bulb can easily access the amygdala, which plays a role in emotional memories (it’s also where the “fight or flight” reflex comes from).

“Olfactory has a strong input into the amygdala, which process emotions. The kind of memories that it evokes are good and they are more powerful,” explains Eichenbaum.

This close relationship between the olfactory and the amygdala is one of the reason odors cause a spark of nostalgia.

“We don’t use emotional memory that much,” says Dr. Ron DeVere, director of the Taste and Smell Disorders Clinic and the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center, in Austin, Texas, and member of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). He adds that when people consciously attempt to remember something they focus on the details, not feelings.

“You have an odor, you may not identify the odor, but you are associating that with some memories. The first time you smelled apple pie you may have been at your grandmother’s house,” DeVere says.

Also at play is a relationship between the olfactory system and the hippocampus, which is critical to developing memories. Even though the olfactory system interacts with the emotion and memory centers in the brain, it does not connect with more developed regions.

“Smells do bring back memories,” says Dr. Ken Heilman, James E. Rooks Jr. Distinguished Professor Neurology and Health Psychology at the University of Florida and a member of AAN.

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Holiday Health Tips from CDC – Amarillo Diagnostic Clinic

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Wash your hands often.

Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Wash your hands with soap and clean running water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and clean water are not available, use an alcohol-based product.

Clean Hands Save Lives


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Stay warm.

Cold temperatures can cause serious health problems, especially in infants and older adults. Stay dry, and dress warmly in several layers of loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing.

Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter Weather

Winter Weather


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Manage stress.

The holidays don’t need to take a toll on your health. Keep a check on over-commitment and over-spending. Balance work, home, and play. Get support from family and friends. Keep a relaxed and positive outlook.

Stress at Work


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Travel safely.

Whether you’re traveling across town or around the world, help ensure your trip is safe. Don’t drink and drive, and don’t let someone else drink and drive. Wear a seat belt every time you drive or ride in a motor vehicle. Always buckle your child in the car using a child safety seat, booster seat, or seat belt according to his/her height, weight, and age.

Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety

Impaired Driving

Keep Kids Safe on the Road

Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter Weather

Traumatic Brain Injury

Travelers’ Health


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Be smoke-free.

Avoid smoking and breathing other people’s smoke. If you smoke, quit today! Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or talk to your health care provider for help.

Quit Smoking


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Get check-ups and vaccinations.

Exams and screenings can help find problems before they start. They can also help find problems early, when the chances for treatment and cure are better. Vaccinations help prevent diseases and save lives. Schedule a visit with your health care provider for a yearly exam. Ask what vaccinations and tests you should get based on your age, lifestyle, travel plans, medical history, and family health history.

Things to Do Before Your Next Check-Up

Family Health History Resources and Tools

Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work

Vaccines and Immunizations

Safety of 2010-2011 Flu Vaccines

Women: Stay Healthy at Any Age (AHRQ)

Men: Stay Healthy at Any Age (AHRQ)


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Watch the kids.

Children are at high risk for injuries that can lead to death or disability. Keep a watchful eye on your kids when they’re eating and playing. Keep potentially dangerous toys, food, drinks, household items, choking hazards (like coins and hard candy), and other objects out of kids’ reach. Learn how to provide early treatment for children who are choking. Make sure toys are used properly.

Injuries among Children and Adolescents

Toy Safety Tips (CPSC)


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Prevent injuries.

Injuries can occur anywhere and some often occur around the holidays. Use step stools instead of furniture when hanging decorations.  Leave the fireworks to the professionals. Wear a bicycle helmet to help prevent head injuries.

Most residential fires occur during the winter months. Keep candles away from children, pets, walkways, trees, and curtains. Never leave fireplaces, stoves, or candles unattended. Don’t use generators, grills, or other gasoline- or charcoal-burning devices inside your home or garage. Install a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector in your home. Test them once a month, and replace batteries twice a year.

Bicycle Related Injuries

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning Prevention

Fall-Related Injuries during the Holiday Season- United States, 2000-2003

General Injury Related Information

Fire Deaths and Injuries: Prevention Tips

Fireworks-Related Injuries


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Handle and prepare food safely.

As you prepare holiday meals, keep you and your family safe from food-related illness. Wash hands and surfaces often. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (including their juices) away from ready-to-eat foods and eating surfaces. Cook foods to the proper temperature. Refrigerate promptly. Do not leave perishable foods out for more than two hours.

It’s Turkey Time: Safely Prepare Your Holiday Meal

Seasonal Food Safety: Fact Sheets  (USDA)


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Eat healthy, and be active.

With balance and moderation, you can enjoy the holidays the healthy way. Choose fresh fruit as a festive and sweet substitute for candy. Select just one or two of your favorites from the host of tempting foods. Find fun ways to stay active, such as dancing to your favorite holiday music. Be active for at least 2½ hours a week. Help kids and teens be active for at least 1 hour a day.

Alcohol: Frequently Asked Questions

Get Smart Entertaining PDF

Healthy Weight

Be Physically Active in the New Year

Managing Diabetes During the Holidays

Physical Activity for Everyone


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Protect pets from rabies.

Pets are also considered family members by many. Keep them healthy. There are several things you can do to protect your pet from rabies. First, visit your veterinarian with your pet on a regular basis and keep rabies vaccinations up-to-date for all cats, ferrets, and dogs.

About Rabies

Healthy Pets Healthy People

Healthy Pets