Does this scent bring back memories? It’s a combination of sweet and slightly musky, a vanilla-like fragrance with slight overtones of cherry, with a touch of salted, wheat-based dough.

That’s the profile of Play-Doh. Hasbro just trademarked the scent, which Jonathan Berkowitz, Senior VP of Global Marketing for the brand, calls synonymous with childhood and fun.”

He may be right. Just as with images and sounds, smells transmit emotions and conjure up all sorts of strong memories. Already, AP reports, you can find Play-Doh-scented cologne and candles online.

Contemplate a scent that you find evocative. It could be anything. Freshly-cut grass. A brand of soap. A campfire. The inside of a new car. A meal cooking in the oven. Close your eyes and smell it now. Think of the feeling it gives you.

How can smells do that?

The late Howard Eichenbaum, a neuroscientist at Boston University, explained that it has to do with the link between the olfactory system and two parts of the brain: the hippocampus and the amygdala.

The hippocampus is where we lay down new long-term memories, while the amygdala processes emotions. Unlike the case with our other senses, our olfactory information has immediate access to these regions, said Dr. Eichenbaum. So smells can establish enduring memories related to time and place (via the hippocampus) and also the vivid emotions tied to those memories (via the amygdala).

Many studies of involuntary memory mention Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, in which a cake dipped in tea prompts the narrator to recall his childhood. The odour-memory link has even been called the Proustian Phenomenon.

By the way, the reason why smell is particularly associated with our memories of food? Our taste buds can distinguish what’s salty, sour, sweet, bitter or savoury. But flavour is produced mainly by odour.

Behavioural studies have shown that smells, above images, activate more intense emotional memories (positive or negative) and bring you back in time.

A piece in Scientific American notes studies that demonstrate how odour learning starts even before birth. The amniotic fluid incorporates flavour compounds from the maternal diet, which the fetus ingests. Some studies tracked what happened when women consumed substances with distinctive smells, from garlic to cigarette smoke, during pregnancy. Their infants, compared to ones who hadn’t been exposed to them in utero, preferred those smells.

In her book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote this: “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

Some entrepreneurs have even tried to create a device that captures smells, similar to how a camera captures images. The designer, Amy Radcliffe, says you could determine the molecular makeup of a smell that’s meaningful to you, and generate capsules that entrap it. Crack open the capsule and you “get a hit of that memory”, says Radcliffe.

The nose knows for whom the smell tolls. Sometime soon, an odour will stop you in your tracks and trigger nostalgia, like Play-Doh maybe. Just credit (or blame) your olfactory system, hippocampus and amygdala. It makes perfect scents.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

May 23, 2018

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