What comes to mind when you smell freshly cut grass or chocolate chip cookies cooling on the counter? If you are like many people, these smells can bring up memories even when we aren’t expecting it. Perhaps you remember playing with your children or grandchildren when you smell Play-Doh or think of your wedding day when you smell a certain perfume. While you may have anecdotal stories of how smell conjured a memory for you, there is also scientific research that shows us that smell is a powerful tool when it comes to memory and positive experience.
Scientists have been able to track the importance of smell in memory recall for decades. In 2004, researchers were able to demonstrate actual neurological changes when smells were introduced to subjects. In the study, women who smelled a perfume that was associated with a positive memory had increased brain activity. When they smelled a perfume they hadn’t smelled before, their brain activity remained unchanged.
But the research goes even further to demonstrate why smells can give us a glimpse into a memory or certain emotion. The olfactory area of your brain, responsible for recognizing smells, is close to the parts of your brain responsible for emotion and memory. This close connection could explain why smelling a peony can make you remember your grandmother’s garden and feeling happy.
Scientists have also recently demonstrated that an olfactory stimulation can give a more vivid memory than auditory cues. Simply put, a smell can impact your experience more than words, sights, or sounds.
The Uses in Senior Care
How does all of this olfactory stimulation relate to senior care? You may be surprised. Senior living communities often feature sensory stimulation as a part of their activity programming, especially for those living with chronic pain or memory issues. Scents such as lavender can be used to promote relaxation and sleep for these challenging populations, while scents such as homemade baking can be the starting point for a reminiscing session about favorite recipes and childhood memories.
When you begin to look for senior living communities for yourself or for your loved one, don’t discount the importance of smell. After all, your olfactory stimulation is the starting point for retrieving memories and positive emotions. Try to avoid communities that smell of cleaning chemicals; this sterile smell can lead to memories of hospitals or other clinical environments. Instead, try to find a community that literally smells like home. You’ll find that these environments are the best for comfortable and happy living.
Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words didn’t appreciate the memories and emotions that can happen after an olfactory experience. Take smells seriously as you begin your senior living community research.