Smell memory

I won’t speculate as to why men are most aroused by smells of food [refer: Hirsch’s 1997 study, cited in the Chicago Tribune and Jack Turner’s Spice (2004), pp 256-257], or why chicken soup seems to do as much for broken spirits as illness, but I suspect it is all related to smell memory.

We are exposed to different smells every time we cook and eat — in everything we do, really — and these affect us in different ways. I am sure you will have heard of aromatherapy, that branch of alternative medicine that uses plant oils and essences to alter mood and health. Aside from the therapeutic benefits we can derive from plant aromas, we may also be able to use our olfaction (sense of smell) to aid memory recall. There is significant evidence to suggest that memory is more closely linked with smell than our other senses, and memories can be triggered by food aromas many years after an event has passed.

memories of lamb roasts past

I seem to remember that, years ago, one of my law-student friends had a lecturer who styled his unit workbook as a cookbook, recommending recipes and scents for his students to prepare while studying. The aim was to give his students simple triggers, such as a sprig of rosemary, to aid memory recall during the exam [was a roast leg of lamb linked to torts? I forget]. Cool trick, but did it work? My friend passed this unit, and he also passed his other law units, so I am sure his many hours of study paid off.

This said, Robin Reineke notes (via the Monell Center) that studies have shown:

“recall can be enhanced if learning was done in the presence of odor, and that same odor was present at the time of recall. Although the accuracy of the memory is not affected by the type of sensory cue (olfactory or auditory), the intensity and vividness of the memory are increased when the cue is olfactory.”

The impacts of odour on author-philosopher Marcel Proust’s memory are famously documented, particularly in his work Remembrance of Things Past. It is this book that inspired neurologists to refer to the involuntary recall of memory evoked by smell as the ‘Proust Effect’. Katrina Alloway’s blog includes even more discussion around the Proust Effect — and a recipe for madeleines to boot.

Jonah Lehrer’s book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, connects the childhood recollections of Proust to modern understandings of memory function, including the link to smell. [Aside: the book also discusses the father of modern French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, in terms of food science and tastebud manipulation. A fascinating topic for another time.]

Lehrer explains that, because of the way that smell is processed in the brain, we constantly relate new aromas with past scentual experiences. In this way, our sense of smell provides us with hooks to other memories and feelings.

Incidentally, the value of this link has not been lost on big business: companies such as ScentAir are being created to specialise in “sensory branding.” Smell-O-Vision, anyone…?

Over my life, I have noticed that certain smells transport me to particular events, meals and feelings. I also regularly seek out foods and aromas for comfort (like tom yum soup), rest (chamomile, lemon balm, lavender) and mental stimulation (eg. rosemary & peppermint oils). With my recent reading in mind, I aim to understand and intend the aromatic effects from my foodly exploits.

The body of research regarding the interrelationship between smell and memory is growing. I have only scratched the surface, and it has whetted my appetite for more. I hope my early learnings have been interesting and useful for you.

Next time you have an exam or a big presentation to prepare for, I challenge you to incorporate some culinary scents into your preparation and see if it works. It certainly can’t hurt.



  1. Hi Hannah
    Very interesting post. I love the idea of using smell as memory trigger in exams!
    I recently came across something called VAKOG learning ie learning/teaching using all the senses (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory) it makes a lot of sense to me. Why limit your discovery of the world to just a couple of senses if using all of them helps you appreciate it so much more?
    So start sniffing!! Who cares if people think you are weird!


    • Thanks for your comment, Katrina. I find this topic enthralling.

      I have a natural bias towards VAKOG learning. It seems to me that a good dinner party satisfies all the senses, and I always remember infinitesimal details from a great meal. Now to harness that brainpower for other purposes…

      Definitely food for thought!

      H 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s