Sense of Smell

Smell and Memory

Mahaka beach

Some of our smells links to specific memories of objects, events, or places. Image by nick hoke.

It’s the middle of winter, but you are going to be out in the sun all day, so you pull out your bottle of sunscreen and pour some into your palm. Suddenly, the tropical sunscreen smell makes you think of summer, and digging your toes into warm beach sand. Why do some smells link to specific memories?

The olfactory bulb that recognizes smells is part of the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that deals with emotion, memory, and feelings. When you smell things, the olfactory bulb talks to the rest of the system, allowing your brain to make a connection between the smell and what you’re feeling or experiencing at the time. That’s why childhood experiences are often brought back up when you smell something you encountered at an early age, and why people often like different sets of smells.

limbic system

When your nose smells something, it tells the brain about what it is smelling. The nose talks a lot with the limbic system, which controls your memory, and emotions. Click for more details.

The limbic system isn’t the only one that talks to the olfactory system. In fact, flavor is a combination of your sense of smell and your sense of taste. Your brain combines the sensations to give a more unique recognition of the food you are tasting. Some animals, like mice, have brains that will combine sounds and smells to allow them to better sense the world around them. 

Additional images via Wikimedia Commons.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Smell and Memory
  • Author(s): Pierce Hutton, Megan Turnidge
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: September 15, 2017
  • Date accessed: February 17, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Pierce Hutton, Megan Turnidge. (2017, September 15). Smell and Memory. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved February 17, 2024 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Pierce Hutton, Megan Turnidge. "Smell and Memory". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 15 September, 2017.

MLA 2017 Style

Pierce Hutton, Megan Turnidge. "Smell and Memory". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 15 Sep 2017. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 17 Feb 2024.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see
Afghan boy smells flower - Cultural support team

Our brain links certain smells to things we've seen, tasted, or experienced.

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