Anatomical Aspects of the Olfactory System


This aim of this paper is to; examine the anatomical aspects of the olfactory system and how they interact with the systems that influence memory and emotion, postulate how odors trigger memory, explain the relationship between smell, memory and intimacy, highlight the intimate nature of the memories evoked by odor cues and how they differ from those evoked by visual, verbal and auditory cues by drawing information from a variety of peer review journals as well as provide the perspective of the author to prove the thesis that; scent is the most intimate form of remembering.

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Anatomical Aspects of the Olfactory System

On an anatomical basis, the intimate nature of the memories evoked by smell can be explained by observing the intimate neural connectivity displayed between the olfactory system and the limbic system. The limbic system houses; the hippocampus which plays a significant role in learning and memory as well as the the amygdala, which plays a significant role in understanding and processing emotional aspects of sensory stimuli (Herz & Cupchik, 1995). It is this emotional aspect of a memory that renders it intimate and personal to individuals. The perception of odors activates these specific areas within the limbic system, via limited activation strategies that contribute to the suddenness of memories induced by olfactory stimuli, these memories then perform the secondary function of activating the specific emotions associated with these smells. Olfactory nerves project directly to the amygdala complex and this contributes to the highly intimate nature of memories that are evoked by smell (Zald & Pardo, 1997). Moreover, brain areas involved in producing visual vividness such as the occipital gyrus are also activated by odor stimulus resulting in memories that are more pronounced and have the capacity to transport the individual to the specific moment in their lives when the memory was created. This vividness as well as the emotional nature of the memories evoked by olfactory stimulus leads to the intimate nature of the memories that can be evoked by smell (Dolan et al, 2002)

How Odor Triggers Memory

Sensory memory acts as a form of storage to our experiences, our personalities and the perceptions we have acquired throughout our lives. The capacity to remember these depends on the presence of sensory reawakening that is facilitated by the presence of the same exact stimulus at a later time in our lives. Therefore, the occurrence of vivid recollections of past events through olfactory stimulation can only precipitated by exposure to the specific smell associated with the original experience (Schab, 2002) Memories invoked by olfactory stimulus tend to be sudden and have the capacity to move us to actions sometimes without our own realization. Odor stimuli can even illicit involuntary responses such as elevated heart rate, hyperventilation and increased perspiration, changes in mood and overall disposition depending on the kind of memory that is retrieved upon exposure to this stimulus. This is because the olfactory system is the most sensitive of all the sensory systems and stimuli from this system does not have to go through the thalamus which houses the brain’s relay system.

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Olfactory stimuli goes directly to the behavior centers of the brain and have very little subjectivity to self-control and aspects of human rationality. The sense of smell triggers memories, these memories then act as messengers of one’s past experiences and evoke the emotional responses associated with these experiences. These responses contribute to the effectiveness of olfactory cues as a means to aid recollection of intimate experiences. In a study conducted by Cann & Ross (2011), 63 male college students were subjected to fifty images of college female students in the presence of a pleasant or unpleasant odor and later asked to identify the images in the slides after a forty eight hour delay in a visual recognition test. The results of the study showed that there was a striking improvement in visual recognition test results by incorporating the presence of the same odor at both sessions and the removal of this variable caused a decrease in the capacity of the students to identify the female students in the slides.

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Relationship between Smell, Memory and Intimacy

Odors have a very high specificity to the emotions that they can aid in recollecting. This could be due to the intimate nature of these experiences. Since olfactory stimulus is the most easily perceived, the odors associated with these experiences are integrated almost instantaneously in to the experience and are less subject to eventual degradation. Emotion plays a significant role in memory retrieval, emotional experiences tend to occupy very intimate positions in an individual’s mind and the memory for these experiences is much more enhanced as compared to the memory for experiences that do not have an emotional/intimate aspect to them (Dolan et al, 2002). The capacity for odor stimulus to facilitate the recollection of these intimate memories is inimitable by any other sensory stimulus making it the most effective channel of acquiring an intimate perspective to an individual’s past experiences and encounters.

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Intimate Nature of Olfactory Invoked Memory

This effectiveness can be demonstrated by the kind of memories that are typically generated by olfactory stimulus. In a study by Low (2013), narrative interviews were used to show that smell plays an important role in remembering the events of our childhood, past intimate relationships as well as difficult times and moments of hardship. The study revealed that, smells from our childhood presented to us during adulthood, had a nostalgic element to them as well as invoking feelings of solace and comfort. These old memories served as a basis for continuous reconnection with the past self and facilitated self-reconstruction (Willander & Larson, 2006). Odor stimulus also aided in remembering past intimate relationships, with the smells associated with loved ones serving as a constant reminder of the emotions associated with having these people in participant’s lives. As mentioned earlier, the senses act as a form of storage for our encounters. Therefore, the perceptions smells associated with these relationships, will trigger the memories and emotions associated with the particular loved one and may even alter the mood of an individual. For instance, receiving an odor stimulus relating to a grandparent who just happens to have passed away, along with triggering feeling of nostalgia, may also lead to sadness and trigger the grieving process. The events of our childhood are more clearly recollected from odor cues due to the fairly new encounters made during the first ten years of life. Another kind of memory typically evoked by smell is a memory of a difficult time or a place of hardship. Olfactory stimulus may serve to remind a person of their emotional state during a difficult time or a moment of hardship. These cues may seem inconsequential to an observer but their significance to the individual can sometimes lead to debilitating symptoms that can sometimes border on post-traumatic stress disorder due to the emotional effect these experiences may have had on the individual. Odor typically invokes memories that are vivid, more emotional, older and is most effective while retrieving autobiographic memories (Schab, 1990).

Olfactory Stimulus VS Visual, Verbal and Auditory Stimuli

The capacity for smell to facilitate the recollection of these types of intimate memories is unmatched by any other sensory stimulus with verbal cues typically undergoing multiple strategic nerve activations before they can achieve their objective of invoking a particular memory, auditory and visual stimuli and their responses being subject to the relay system in the thalamus as well as human rationality and self-control. Other senses are also unable to activate the emotional aspect of the memories associated with olfactory stimulus as well as activate the areas of the brain that provide the vividness witnessed in the recollection of memories evoked by odor stimulus(Willander & Larson, 2006).

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Moreover, visual and auditory memories have a higher rate of degradation than memories of particular smells. The prolonged presence of the memory of this smell ensures that all the experiences associated with it are also easily retrievable upon sensory reawakening. The anatomic positioning of the olfactory system also plays a role in the intimate nature of the memories that can be invoked by smell, this intimate proximity to the limbic system ensures that it has the capacity to stimulate the areas within the limbic system that are concerned with memory and emotion (Zald & Pardo, 1997). It is this capacity that leads to the intimacy of the memories stored through this system and enables them to be stored for longer periods of time and renders them easily retrievable.

Opportunities for Utilization

In the quest to gather information in support of this particular thesis, several opportunities to utilize scents and the intimate nature of the memories evoked by them presented themselves to me. Of notable significance, was the capacity to enable capturing and storing smells associated with loved ones in end of life technologies in order to facilitate positive reminiscence and aid the grieving process. There is also a possibility that this ability to capture and store smells can aid in the sharing of enriching personal experience and the vivid nature of the memories evoked by olfactory stimulus enable a more effective approach to the treatment of patients who are experiencing the memory loss associated with diseases such as dementia. The intimate nature of memory associated with scent, as well as its capacity to alter emotional state and lead to changes in mood, can also aid in the treatment of people with psychological disorders by providing a fresh perspectives on causality. To illustrate, a study by Masaoka et al (2012) demonstrated that people with high anxiety experience a stronger sense of vividness when recollecting events after being exposed to odor stimulus. This kind of guided research can enable the development of more effective strategies to manage anxiety disorders.


The olfactory system’s success in being the most intimate form of memory is in part due to its proximity to the limbic system which leads to its interaction with the amygdala and the hippocampus which are the regions of the brain that influence the understanding and processing of emotions and odor guided learning and memory respectively. Odor triggers memory by providing sensory reawakening upon exposure to the specific scent associated with the particular experience or encounter. Smell memory and intimacy are related by the provision, by odor, of an emotional aspect to memory that creates the intimacy associated with the memories that are typically invoked by odor stimulus. These memories are summarized as autobiographical memories that are characterized by being; older and emotionally charged. These kind of memories may include remembering personalities encountered during childhood, times of hardship and difficulty as well as relationships with loved ones. These memories differ from those invokes by visual and auditory cues by their prolonged capacity to evade degradation in the brain, their reduced subjectivity to self-control and rationalization by the mind. It is the discussion of these aspects of odor and its resultant stimulus that offer conclusive evidence to support the thesis of this paper that memories associated with scent are intimate, more profound, take a deeper look at the effect that our experiences have had on those personal intimate parts of our lives, enable us to relive those moments that shaped our characters, made us proud, joyful or sad and are held in utmost importance in our minds such that they can remain for years and years and cannot be forgotten easily

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