Why cinnamon, pine and clove are such a memory treasure trove.
Every holiday season of my childhood, my mom drove my brother and me to our great aunt’s house to decorate gingerbread cookies. Now, every time I smell gingerbread, I’m transported back to Aunt Catherine’s kitchen, with its flickering candles and the warm smell of cookies baking in the oven.
Why is it that certain holiday smells like cinnamon, pine and clove convey childhood memories so vividly? To find out, I visited the Aroma Workshop, a “scent bar” on the north side of Chicago.
The shop’s owner, Tedd Neenan, told me that our scent receptors are close to the part of the brain where memories exist. “So every time you smell something, your brain tries to familiarize it. If it’s a sensation that you’re really attached to, like the smell of popcorn in movies, it’s instantaneous,” he said.
Our brain processes smells by using something called the “olfactory bulb,” a neural structure that stretches from our nose to the bottom of our brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory, according to the New York-based magazine Psychology Today. Those areas are known as the amygdala and the hippocampus, and they work together to help us process and store emotional memories.
Information that we can take in through other senses like sight, sound and touch doesn’t pass through these areas of the brain, which might explain why smells are so emotionally evocative.
During the holidays, retailers capitalize on the strong connection between smell and feeling: Department stores no longer just play Christmas music, they’ve now begun using certain scents that we associate with Christmas in order to get us in the buying spirit. Studies have shown that this combination of Christmas music and Christmas smells makes us evaluate consumer products more favorably than we would otherwise.
Since the holidays only come once a year, it’s the tradition we like to be reminded of. For me, it’s the smell — or even just the taste — of gingerbread that takes me back. Scents can also be “flavor enhancers,” Neenan said, which might explain why Starbucks uses classic flavors like eggnog or pumpkin to sell millions of dollars of holiday-themed drinks every winter.
In short, there’s nothing wrong with indulging scent-induced nostalgia during the holidays — after all, our brains are wired to work this way. Just be aware of how this wiring might be exploited to get you to empty your wallet.