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Aromatic Memories: The Science of How Scents, Feelings, and Memories are Connected

Have you ever been transported to a distant memory with just a single breath of an oil fragrance? That was exactly what I experienced when I first walked into my local gym in Burlington, MA, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was immediately drawn to a subtle, deeply relaxing, and enveloping scent that brought back happy childhood memories of beach trips taken with family and friends to Jacmel, one of my favorite coastal cities, in the south of Haiti.

The Memory

As I breathed in the gentle ocean fragrance floating in my gym, I felt instantly relaxed. I could feel Jacmel beach’s radiant sun and its sea breeze. I could taste its salty air and hear its ocean waves gently rolling onto its shore. I could see the palm trees, the adults laying on the beach, the kids building sand castles, and the friendly beach vendors cutting coconuts with their machetes to quickly offer them to people passing by.

Proustian Moment

I also heard myself there laughing, grimacing, and screaming at the same time as my older sister splashed the cold sea water on me. I smiled as I remembered that part of my hesitation back then was also due to the folk stories associated with the Jacmel ocean’s current. I had, what I later learned was, a Proustian moment –a sensory experience that triggers a rush of memories, often long past or even seemingly forgotten.

If like me, you enjoy smelling pleasing essential oil scents, either directly from a cotton ball, your neck scarf, or aromatherapy bracelet, or indirectly from its diffusion in your living space, you may be curious about the science behind the connection between scents, feelings, and memories.

The Science

As explained in the article "What the Nose Knows," published in 2020 in the Harvard Gazette, the connection between fragrances, feelings, and memories has a scientific explanation. The reason why a smell can bring back memories and emotions is because of the way your brain works. Your sense of smell is connected to a part of the brain called the limbic system, which controls your emotions and helps you remember things. When you smell something, the information goes from your nose to your brain through a direct connection, allowing you to feel the scent and all the memories and emotions associated with it. This is why pleasurable memories of my beach trips to Jacmel resurfaced in my mind when I was embraced by an ocean scent as I walked into my gym.

The Culture and Personal Aspect

Beyond just the science, there's also a cultural and personal aspect to the connection between scents and memories that you might have experienced. For example, the scent of Encens or Frankincense may remind you of sacred places or places of worship, the scent of the sea breeze or sea salt may evoke in you just like it did in me memories of trips you’ve taken to the beach, the scent of cinnamon or pine may make you reminisce about winter holidays, while the scent of the freshly cut grass may transport you back to times you spent outdoors. These scents, when intertwined with your emotions and personal experiences can make them more powerful and meaningful.

My personal scented experience at the gym is a testament to this, and it not only motivated me to visit the gym frequently at that time but also inspired me to create the Jakmel Reviving Ocean Scents Collection. I invite you to experience it and see which seashore it will transport you to. As you explore a scented lifestyle to support your well-being journey, tell us a Proustian moment you experienced after you smelled a pleasing fragrance.

Katy Maréfleur

Certified Aromatherapist Level 1

Co-Owner at Maréfleur by Essence & Sérénité

The statements included herein have not been assessed by the Food and Drug Administration. No information provided in this article is to treat, cure, or prevent any kind of illness. Please read our full DISCLAIMER.

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