Nostalgia Therapy: Making Sense Of Smells

The Link Between Smell and Nostalgia

Getting a whiff of a particular scent can bring back vivid memories. For instance, the smell of cookies baking in the oven can transport you back to your childhood. This is nostalgia. What is it about scents that trigger memories so vivid and real it almost feels like being transported back in time?

Smell is an ancient sense. Living things, from simple bacteria to the most complex bloodhound, have the ability to detect chemicals in their surrounding environment. After all, odors are molecules and olfactory systems are just the chemical-sensing apparatus. Nonetheless, the link behind nostalgia and scent is very powerful. The human body contains more smell receptors (at least 1,000) than other senses do. This means that you can effectively discern many different kinds of smells, even those that you can’t describe in words. 1

According to a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the brain plays a key role in establishing a relationship between memories and scents. 2 Smells pass through the olfactory bulb, which is closely linked to the hippocampus and amygdala, regions of the brain that handle emotion and memory. This explains why particular scents can instantly whisk you away to a particular moment in time, often to childhood.

Scent-induced Memories

In general, scent-induced memories are poignant and quite different from other memories. In a study that involved giving older adults an olfactory, visual or auditory cue and then asked to recall the memories triggered by that cue, scent-cued memories were found to be older memories from earlier stages of life, while the memories associated with visual and verbal information were from early adulthood. 3

A different study revealed that both old and young adults could recall twice as many memories if they were associated with a certain smell. This provides substantial evidence for olfactory cueing, which remain intact even in old age.

Scents and Traumatic Memories

Scent-induced memories are not always from positive associations. For example, some odors are known to trigger trauma-related flashbacks and induce physiological arousal. These are thought to play a role in triggering disturbing memories in individuals suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Quite interestingly, the fears of a mother may be passed down to her children through scents. In a study which involved conditioning female rats to fear the scent of peppermint before impregnation, the rat’s newborns were exposed to the smell of peppermint and to the sight of their mother’s reaction to the scent. 4 The newborns were found to have learned to fear the scent, even when the mothers were not present, after just one exposure. However, when amygdala activity was blocked in the pups, they no longer feared the scent.

From this, it seems that infants can actually learn certain potential environmental threats from their mothers before their motor and sensory development allows them to conduct a comprehensive exploration of their surroundings. 

Power of Scents: Efficacy of Aromatherapy

Scent-induced autobiographical memories generally occur via happenstance, when a certain unsolicited odor happens to pass by your nose and you suddenly catch a whiff. However, you can harness the power of scents to induce real-life emotional and physical reactions through the use of aromatherapy.

According to recent research:
    • A systematic review of 16 random control trials that focused on studying the effects of aromatherapy among individuals presenting stress-related symptoms revealed that most of the study concluded with a reduction in stress, with no adverse effects reported. 5
    • Sweet orange oil has been found, in a number of studies, to create stress-inhibiting effects in the human body.
    • In comparison to controls, women who were exposed to the scent of orange essential oil before their dentist appointment had significantly lower levels of stress, a higher level of calmness, and a more positive mood. The study concluded that the exposure to an ambient odor of orange produces a relaxing effect on the body.
    • Ambient odors of lavender oil and orange oil were found to reduce stress and improve the mood of patients awaiting dental treatment. 6
Of course, stress is only one use for aromatherapy. Other potential uses include:
    • Peppermint and alertness: The scent of peppermint oil has been shown to increase alertness.
    • Green apple oil for discomfort: In one study, this scent was found to significantly relieve discomfort. It can also work with other scents in aromatherapy for relief.

nostalgia therapy

Benefits of Nostalgia Therapy

Since nostalgia is both a thought-process and an emotion, it’s widely considered quite different from other emotions. For example, when a person is happy, they can simply be happy, but when they experience nostalgia, it involves the cognitive process of bringing back memories, which has emotions attached to them.

Nostalgia therapy is a unique take on a common form of psychological meditation. Often associated with music, but being experimented with via a variety of other mediums (especially smell), the idea is to create a meditative state that allows for recollection of happy moments from the past and use the physical stimulus to create a positive emotional impact.

According to research conducted by Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides from the Center for Research of Self Identity at the University of Southampton in England, nostalgia therapy is far from being the feeble escape from our present. 7 Rather, they present it as a source of strength for better facing the future. 

Creates Calming Effect

Nostalgia typically brings about calm feelings because of the memories it invokes, which can help individuals dealing with stress manage their condition. Any kind of change, whether good or bad, can be stressful. Nostalgia enables you to cognitively and emotionally keep track of what has remained stable. This way, you will have some sense of continuity to ground you despite the change.

Counters Negative Emotions

Loneliness is sometimes associated with sadness. In modern culture, there’s so much mobility, and it’s easy to find yourself being far away from the people you love.

Several studies have documented that when a person is nostalgic, it can be helpful in combating loneliness and reinstating their sense of connectedness to the people they love or miss. As such, through nostalgia therapy, you can relive the sense of being close to the people you miss.

Encourage Healthy Behaviors

Nostalgia can help induce or promote healthy behaviors. For most individuals, the childhood years are the healthiest. When we remember things we used to do as kids, we can easily reinstate those healthy emotions, such as feeling a sense of security or feeling loved.

Acts as a Therapy for Aging

Nostalgia is also used to help in the treatment of individuals with conditions associated with aging.

A number of studies are underway to examine nostalgia therapy and brain processing. As it turns out, the nostalgia brought about by certain scents and music appears to stimulate additional regions of the brain. 8 One of the studies suggests that when a person smells something that makes them feel nostalgic, the emotional and rewards sensors of the brain are activated. These interconnect with regions of the brain that store autobiographical memory.

Encourages Emotionality, Empathy, and Compassion

Emotionality deals with how intensely an individual experiences an emotion. Nostalgia enhances the capacity for people to experience emotions. When you are sad, you feel quite sad, and when you’re happy, you feel incredibly happy.

Nostalgia tends to induce compassion and empathy. Part of the reason is that people who feel nostalgic generally value their relationships. In other words, they are people-people, who care about others and feel oriented towards others.


There’s a lot to learn about smell and nostalgia. However, if a particular scent stops you right in your tracks, and compels you to do something, it’s good to know that the brain is pulling the blanket of nostalgia over your conscious mind. And if it’s the smell of baking cookies that makes you want to call your mom and dad or your grandma, go ahead and do it. It’ll probably make their day—and yours.

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