Scented memories: How odours shape our feelings and memories

If I were to ask you what your favourite colour is right now, you would probably have an answer at the ready. But have you ever thought about what your personal favourite fragrance is? If not, now is the time to do so. Because today we're going to talk about odours and their influence on our psyche.

You may be familiar with Marcel Proust's novel "In Search of Lost Time" (or its film adaptation from 1999). In one scene, the narrator vividly describes how the smell and taste of a bite of madeleine dipped in tea suddenly brings back a flood of happy childhood memories. We've probably all had similar experiences: the smell of freshly baked cinnamon stars, which immediately conjures up Christmas cheer. Or the scent of citrus blossom, which immediately transports us back to our holidays. In psychology, this effect is often referred to as the "Proust effect" or the "Madeleine effect" in reference to this scene.

The fact that odours have such a strong effect on our feelings and memories is due to the fact that our sense of smell (like our sense of taste) has a direct effect on a part of our brain that is very old in evolutionary terms: The olfactory cells in our nose react to odour molecules and transmit the stimulus via the olfactory nerve to the so-called olfactory bulb in the brain. Numerous further nerve pathways originate there - and most of them lead directly to the so-called limbic system. This includes the amygdala, which plays a central role in the development of emotions. And the hippocampus, the centre for the brain's long-term memory. This direct "dedicated line" between the nose and the limbic system is the cause of the intense and spontaneous emotions and memories that scents can evoke in us.

Just how central the role of odour processing actually is in the development of emotions can be seen in experiments in which rats had their olfactory bulbs removed. The poor animals developed depressive symptoms as a result! In fact, studies have also shown that people with severely impaired olfactory ability show more anxious and depressive symptoms. If their olfactory deficit is treated - with medication, surgery or with the help of odour training - these symptoms decrease.

Loss of smell is also a common accompanying symptom of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia or Parkinson's disease. There is no need to panic if you are unable to distinguish clearly between strawberry and blackcurrant flavours at your next wine tasting. But it is well worth paying a little more attention to the subject of flavour when it comes to happiness. A well-functioning nose is very important for quality of life, because without it, the sense of taste is also severely impaired. You can actually train your nose in a targeted way: If you smell different strong aromas every day for three months, your sense of smell is proven to improve. Professional tasters (e.g. wine sommeliers, but also restaurant tasters) therefore sharpen their sense of smell very carefully over many years in special seminars.

However, you can also do this easily and without much extra effort at home. For example, you could put three or four apples of different varieties and colours in your trolley the next time you go shopping. Then wash them well at home, cut them open and sniff them with your eyes closed. I'm sure you'll notice the first differences in the respective flavours even with such a simple exercise. How would you describe them for yourself? Of course, the same game also works well with other fruits, spices or almost any food. (Okay, sniffing out the differences between different mineral waters will be a bit of a challenge). But your field of practice is of course not limited to food. Once you start paying attention, you'll suddenly notice lots of other odours in your everyday life that you've smelled before but weren't aware of. And you can think of a suitable description for each one. It's fun and trains your olfactory perception a little more each time.

If you feel like it, why not experiment with scents that you like in your everyday life? You can then surround yourself with them in a targeted way: at home, at work, in the car, as a fragrance on your clothes. Orange, bergamot and rose are classic mood enhancers; lavender or vanilla are calming and relaxing. Hopefully there will be a few spring flowers to smell outside soon. Just sniff yourself happy!

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