We make most of our olfactory memories as children.

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Smell and Memory

A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people's moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it's sometimes called the "emotional brain," smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren't for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory -- associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

Because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories. But we actually begin making associations between smell and emotion before we're even born. Infants who were exposed to alcohol, cigarette smoke or garlic in the womb show a preference for the smells. To them, the smells that might upset other babies seem normal or even comforting.

In the next section, we'll find out how some people use smell's ability to trigger memory.