The Power of Smell to Evoke Memories
A lawn mower drones in the distance and a warm breeze blows through the open window carrying in the scent of freshly cut grass. What memories does that smell bring to mind? In your mind’s eye, maybe you see your father mowing the yard on his tractor, perhaps you’re riding bikes again with the kids down the street through the neighborhood where you grew up, or maybe you just feel the spirit of youthfulness that comes with the first whiff of spring. Whatever memory that poignant grassy smell triggers, chances are it takes you far back in time.
Among the five senses, smell has the strongest and most direct connection to memory. With the ability to conjure quite distant—yet strikingly vivid—memories, smell can be a powerful memory stimulant for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
A study conducted by Stockholm University revealed that smells have the tendency to take someone further back in time than verbal or visual memory cues. When introduced to a smell memory cue, participants in the study, whose average age was 75, most frequently recalled memories from early childhood.1
Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias typically erode short term memory functions before it affects the ability to recall events from one’s distant past, which makes smell a useful means of triggering those memories still intact.
Other senses have the ability to arouse feeling and memories in a person with dementia, but smell is the most direct. According to psychologist Maria Larsson, “The two cerebral structures, the amygdala and the hippocampus play an important role for the storing of memories, and the olfactory nerve has very direct connections to both structures.”1
Help your family member with dementia feel the strong emotions and warm memories associated with smells by popping a batch of cookies in the oven, go for a walk just after it rains, fold the laundry together, or come up with activity ideas of your own that will generate aromas particularly significant to your loved one. Saw dust, a campfire, garlic bread, a fine red wine, perfume, pine, and soap are just a few ideas of scents that may unlock rich, emotional memories and bring comfort to someone with dementia.
- Center for Advanced Study newsletter April 2004