Why are smell and memory linked?

woman holding bundle of lavender

Did you know that of your 5 senses, the sense of smell has the strongest connection to memory?

That scents can trigger memories? And there's even a term for when a smell reminds you of something (scent memory!)?

Perhaps you've experienced this phenomenon before - you'll smell something and it'll immediately take you back to a moment in time or a place where you smelled that scent. The scent may even remind you of a special person in your life and of shared experiences you have with them. 

Why do smells bring back memories?

Smell has the power to trigger memories because the scent processing pathway in the brain first goes through the parts of the brain that process emotions and memories. After going through that part of the brain, only then does it go to the part of the brain that categorizes the smell. 

So, a scent is automatically, by default, associated with a memory. The processing pathways of the other sensory inputs do not go through these parts of the brain, so the sense of smell has this connection that other senses do not. 


historic home

The Proust Effect

As a former English teacher, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Marcel Proust in a blog post on scent and memory. 

Proust was a French novelist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Best known for his work In Search of Lost Time, for this writing on the memory of a smell, I'd like to bring up his work "Remembrance of Things Past."

It was part of this work that actually inspired the term the "Proust effect," used to describe the connection between scent and memory. 

In this piece, Proust writes about the smell of madeleine cookies "soaked in...lime-flowers which [his] aunt used to give [him]." This scent led him to think vividly and "immediately [of] the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden." 


baked goods in a coffee shop scents

Since Proust's writings 100+ years ago, much research has been done into smell and memory for lots of different reasons, including medical reasons (e.g. helping patients with Alzheimers). The better we understand how scent and memory work, the better we can help boost or heal the brain.


woman holding flower

Scented Candles and Memory

While there's lots more science behind the question of linked memories and scent, at the end of the day, I know a lot about scents and how to put them into scented candles, but I'm no scientist.

And rather than focusing on the technical jargon, I'd like to stay in the literary realm for just a moment more because there's so much heart in what Proust had to say about smell and memory: “The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us.”

So, however you think of it (whether from a scientific standpoint or with the viewpoint that scents are "like souls"), let scent remind you of memories, people, and places gone by. Your brain is hardwired for it! 

Shop Scented Candles + Memories


granddaughter with grandmother
Scented Candles: Give the Gift of a Memory


P.S. Grandparents Day is coming up on Sunday, September 11, 2022...

What scent reminds you of your grandma or grandpa?

Wouldn't it be a lovely Grandparents Day gift to give them the gift of a memory in the form of a scented candle?

 Here's a Candle just for Grandma to get you started :)


September 06, 2022 — Kate De Palma

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