The response to this type of smell stimulus is fast and non-verbal. In a nano-second you can experience powerful emotions that can leave you smiling or crying. But why does scent trigger memory? And how does it trigger such strong emotions? The answer is literally all in your head, in the brain’s anatomy. When we get an incoming smell, its first processed by the olfactory system, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, directly connecting to the Limbic System, a v-shaped structure that sits on top of the brain stem. It is made up of the hippocampus, amygdala, part of the thalamus and the hypothalamus and several regions of the cerebral cortex. This is the zone that manages the interface between emotion and memory. It’s also the oldest part of the brain where our basic drives, needs, instincts and fears live. The limbic system also plays an important role in selecting and transmitting information between short and long-term memories, which explains why a short-term experience (like smelling a baking pumpkin pie) can trigger a long-term memory and corresponding emotions (like happy family feasts at Thanksgiving).
But then there’s “the Nose”—that ephemeral knowing you’ve nailed it but you can’t say why in words. I know we’ve hit it when I take in a full nose bouquet of a blended scent, close my eyes and feel my body’s “Ahhhh!” response. The body is wise—must be the hypothalamus and the way it communicates with the pituitary gland via neural and chemical pathways to release hormones into the body. Its also the art of, “it just feels right”!
Sherazad Jamal, The Free Lion Team