Pumpkin pie. Pine. Cinnamon. Peppermint. Roast turkey. Clove-covered oranges. All of these smells most likely elicit fond memories of opening presents by the Christmas tree when you were a kid or gorging yourself on a second helping of Grandma’s pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin pie. Pine. Cinnamon. Peppermint. Roast turkey. Clove-covered oranges.
All of these smells most likely elicit fond memories of opening presents by the Christmas tree when you were a kid or gorging yourself on a second helping of Grandma’s pumpkin pie.
As we get older the holidays can become more stressful, but for some reason the smell of sugar cookies still fills us with the hopeful whimsy of a child waiting for Santa Claus.
That’s because smell can activate decades-old memories and emotions.
Smell can affect your mood and trigger recollection by activating the parts of your brain that control emotion and memory.
The olfactory cortex is one of our fastest-responding sense networks. Located in the limbic system and the amygdala, the olfactory cortex is what perceives smell and gives meaning to it. Because of its closeness to the storage banks for memory and emotion, smell is the strongest associative sense.
Another factor affecting the strength of smell and memory has to do with associative learning. According to Rachel Herz, author of “Odor-associative Learning and Emotion: Effects on Perception and
Beahvior,” smell affects memory and emotion through the following process:
Odors experienced during an event become linked with the memory of that event and can ingrain the smell with meaning, especially if the event is rare or singular. For example, most people only buy Christmas trees during the holidays, thus associating the scent of pine with memories of opening presents with family or large turkey dinners, or of the season as a whole.
Since bringing a Christmas tree into your house doesn’t happen every day, the smell becomes paired with specific memories and emotions tied with that event, reinforcing the odor’s meaning each year. This is why when you hike through a pine forest in the summer, your first thought might be, “Wow, it smells like Christmas,” and you suddenly develop a jolly spring in your step.
So, if you’re feeling like a bit of a Grinch this year, break out the scented candles and boil some cider on the stove for a quick mood adjustment. If you don’t have any positive memories associated with holiday smells, it’s never too late to create some—like Rudolph in the fog, you just have to follow your nose.