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Ever get a whiff of something that hits you with a powerful memory out of the blue? Maybe snickerdoodle cookies, fresh-cut grass, or even a scent you can’t quite put a name to. No matter the specifics, something about a scent from the past seems to transport your mind back to your grandma’s kitchen or childhood backyard more vividly than memories triggered by other senses.
Human brain structures support this more powerful connection between smell and memory. Touch, taste, sight, and hearing all send sensory information through the thalamus – the ‘relay station’ of the brain – which then directs it to other areas for processing. Smell, which developed before the other sensesX, bypasses the thalamus and sends information directly to processing in the olfactory bulb. That area is directly connected to the hippocampus, which is important in processing memory, and to the amygdala, which is important in processing emotionXX.
This direct sensation-to-processing path might also explain why humans struggle to speak about smell compared to other sensory experiences. Consider trying to describe what a pine tree looks like to someone who has never seen one. “It’s green, conical, about 25 feet tall, and has branches every foot or so up the trunk with long needles instead of leaves.” Solid description. Now imagine describing the same pine only by scent. “It, uh…. It smells… piney?”
Scientific studies have demonstrated this difficulty. Compared to written responses to visual or lexical (written words) stimuli, responses to smells were shorter in length. However, they contained significantly more emotional and memory-based descriptors - pretty good support for the “emotional but hard to describe” ideaXX.
Knowing scent and emotion are closely linked but difficult to communicate, it’s interesting see how companies that deal with fragrances market them. Many businesses spend a lot of time and money on smell, from detergents to perfumes to clothing companies. Yet almost none make smell the primary focus when branding or marketingX.
But there is one company focused on selling scents, and specifically selling scents by tying them into emotions and memories. And they’re so good at it that they’re pulling in hundreds of millions in revenue selling a product that really was made functionally irrelevant over a century ago.