100 Things You Should Know About People: #68 — Smells Evoke Emotions and Memories

Picture of a nose

Do you have a type of food that makes you feel a certain way? When you smell it you have an emotional reaction? For me it is kasha. Kasha is a form of buckwheat. You cook the buckwheat kernals in oil and then boil them (with salt, pepper, onion, and garlic).  I’ve never met very many people that have actually eaten kasha, much less know what kasha is.

When I smell kasha cooking I get a big smile on my face and I feel happy. This is because my mom used to cook kasha. I have a positive emotional memory of my mom when I smell kasha cooking.

A special path for smells — The thalamus is a part of the brain that is between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. One of the functions of the thalamus is to process sensory information and send it to the appropriate part of the cortex. For example, visual information comes from the retina, goes to the thalamus and then gets routed to the primary visual cortex. All of the senses send their data to the thalamus before the information goes anywhere else, with the exception of smell. The olfactory system does not go through the thalamus. When you smell something, that sensory data goes right to your amygdala. The amygdala is where emotional information is processed. This is why people react emotionally to smells: You smell a flower and it makes you happy. You smell rotten meat and it makes you feel disgusted. The amygdala is right next to the memory centers of the brain. This is also why you can smell something and have memories invoked.

Smells from a web site? — For a reasonable amount of money you can now buy an olfactory machine that hooks up to your PC, and software that emits many different scents (forest, ocean, turkey, chocolate, etc).  It’s the ScentScape from ScentSciences (www.scentsciences.com)

What do you think? Is there a smell in your favorite websites future?


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3 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #68 — Smells Evoke Emotions and Memories”

  1. Is there an easy way to capture smell? I have a village I go back to every summer, and it smells of a mix of things, namely sea air, honeysuckles, sun screen, maple syrup, and a hint of sewage. I wish I could take that smell with me everywhere.

  2. Interesting post! I’ve read about this idea before (I think in “OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder”), and while the idea is interesting, I think there’s a critical mass problem; companies won’t program their websites to emit smells until enough people have the devices, and people won’t buy the devices until there enough “smell-enabled” websites to justify it. You can get to that tipping point, but it isn’t easy; there just isn’t enough benefit in the technology for most people (though traction could probably start with vertical markets like foodies and perfume afficionados).

  3. From my personal feelings, such direct link between smells and emotions (and no such direct link of emotions with other feelings) does not look real. On the one hand, there are some sounds and images that would cause very strong emotional reaction from me, by evoking strong emotional memories or attitudes. On the other hand, smells in most cases are as informative for me as sounds and visual information. Eg, when I check a piece of food from the fridge, or when I feel some changing smell from kitchen (which tells me that I need to go and make some manipulations with the cooking food) — I have no emotions about this. I just find out that everything is ok, or something is wrong, or requires action, etc.

    Of course, there are smells causing strong emotions – but only some selected ones, just like sounds and images. By the way, too strong smell can cause headache just like too strong sound or too strong flashing lights.

    IMHO many people would show mostly emotional reaction to smell without any reasoning just because they do not use smelling much as a source of information. There are many people who have very poor sence of smell. Smells for them is like light for almost blind people or sounds for almost deaf ones – no useful info, just something exotic and therefore purely emotional.

    Sure, I do not have such complex scientific methods to see how something goes to this or that part of brain. But my experience shows that the link of smells and emotions may be not so simple as shown in the article.

    And, my personal opinion on your question: web-sites emitting smells would be even worse than web-sites which display annoying pop-ups or play music and other sounds without prior «permission» (by clicking «turn on sound» button). Plus, synthetic smells are much worse then synthetic sounds. :)

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