Keith Kelsen’s The Narrative of Scent: The Powerful Context of Scent for Memory

Since the slightest hint of scent can instantly trigger memories from a childhood long ago, can we use scent to program our memories?  In The Scent Narrative, we have explored how certain scents can increase focus, help you drive better or improve your love life. Let’s explore the possibility of scent helping us systematically to recall information we want to.

We know that ancient Chinese culture has long supported that scent was a part of storytelling.  A tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation was to pass around a small container holding spice or incense to accompany the telling of “generational stories”, according to University of Liverpool Researcher, Simon Chu.  Later, when members of the family wanted to recall the moment and the story, they passed around the same scent again.

In her definitive text on the psychology of smell, The Scent of Desire, Rachel Hertz explores the possibility: “The idea that odors might be used to enhance memory is supported by a well-established psychological phenomenon called context-dependent memory.  When you are in the same context, place or mind-set that you were when you learned something, you remember that information better.”

In psychology, this context-dependent memory is all about improved recall of specific episodes, when the context is present at both encoding and retrieval. A practical example is when something is lost and a person “retraces their steps“ to determine all of the possible places where the item might be located. Based on the role that context plays in determining recall, it is not at all surprising that it’s easy to discover the lost item upon returning to the correct context. This example best describes the concept of context-dependent forgetting/remembering.

Research literature on context-dependent memory describes several types of contextual information that may affect recall including environmental context-dependent memory. The most commonly researched area of environmental context-dependent memory is the phenomenon of environmental reinstatement effect. This effect occurs when the reinstatement (i.e. revisiting) of an environmental context acts as a cue for memories related to that environmental context[1]. Scent has been commonly used to recall memories in a situation where a subject believed they had forgotten them.  Interestingly, it’s only when an individual revisits this environmental context that they recall these memories. How much this effect occurs varies and may be classified under two types of reinstatement effects: long-term and short-term.

Let’s explore how and why scent can provide a direct link to the long-term memory. Have you ever smelled someone’s perfume and been instantly transported back in time to a much younger you. Or have you noticed the scent of a newborn baby transports you back to when your children were young? Ever wondered what scents will lock new memories in your mind?

As we have written throughout The Scent Narrative, our sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses we possess, and the merest hint of something familiar can trigger a special memory or wonderful moment in our lives that we treasure.  The reason for this is simple. It’s because there is a direct scientifically proven link in our brains between memory and smell.

Scent is considered an ambient cue in that it is encompassing and aids in recall when learning context and recall context are different. The word ambient is defined as surrounding and encompassing.  In “Moveable cues: a practical method for reducing context-dependent forgetting”, researchers have suggested that ambient cues, such as odor and sound, aid in recall when the learning context and recall context are different.

Memories of new tasks, like physical therapy, can be supported by scent.  These cues are useful in recall because they can also be transferable. Using transferable cues may be useful for individuals who have difficulty using the context recall technique because they have trouble creating a mental image of the original environment. For example, this technique has been proven useful for patients at home who are trying to reproduce skills that they learned in a hospital environment. [2]

Learning can be done with the assistance of scent.  This, in an academic environment, is a “legal cheat” as it reinforces the rigors of study with an aid.  Again, according to The Scent of Desire, Rachel Hertz did a series of experiments to explore the possibility: “First, I found that in order for an ambient scent to facilitate memory, it had to be distinctive or unfamiliar; to stand out from the background so that your attention will be drawn to it, even if you don’t intentionally focus on it.”[3]  Further she stated, “Smell a different fragrance for the different topics you are trying to learn.  If you are studying for a calculus exam and a driver’s license test, be careful to use different scents for each of these topics and to not get them mixed up. If you use the same scent for both, you might find yourself thinking of speed limits when you should be remembering rates for asymptotes.”

There are commercial aspects and applications as well.  Could products be created that both bring back happy memories, while laying the groundwork for new ones?  Katherine Frizoni, the skincare research and development manager for Dove™, says: “Our sense of smell is the most evocative sense but it is often overlooked because we rely so much on what we see and what we hear. We very rarely think about what we smell. But when you smell something, it brings back a memory much quicker than any of your other senses can. It is immediate. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is really closely associated with memory.”[4]  When her Dove team was developing its Youthful Vitality mature-skin body products, it placed a great deal of focus on choosing exactly the right fragrance. That was because it understood the importance of creating a balance between what the Youthful Vitality products do and how they make people feel, and that this scent could help make new memories, too. The Youthful Vitality fragrance was created as a reminder to slow down, to breathe deeply and to remember that, just as with the memory of watching your grandmother put on her make-up, some of the best moments in life are those which are still to happen.

The smell of a fragrance or the whiff of an aroma, no matter how briefly experienced, can unlock some of the best moments in your life and transport you to places you had long forgotten. It also can, with the empowerment of context-dependent memory, be used as a support aid in learning.  We have seen examples of it for memory, physical therapy, classroom learning and even in self-care.  Who knows what wonderful experiences and memories can be revived not just now, or for many years to come, but when we actively program our memory using scent? That’s the power of scent context, it can bring one suddenly and happily to a mindful place even if in the future.

[1] Smith, S.M. (1988) Environmental context-dependent memory. In G. Davies (Ed.), Memory in Context (pp. 13-31). John Wiley & Sons Ltd

[2] Parker, A.; Gellatly, A. (1997). “Moveable cues: a practical method for reducing context-dependent forgetting”. Applied Cognitive Psychology.

[3] Hertz, R.S. (1997) The effects of cue distinctiveness on odor-based context memory. Memory & Cognition


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