This blog post is an attempt to identify the differences between a smell based memory and a memory that is mostly based in visual stimuli. By looking at the differences in visual vs olfactory based memories one can better understand how the brain interprets smell compared to the other senses.
There is a certain brand of pudding which evokes memories from around 20 years ago. The JELL-O brand chocolate pudding has a distinct smell which reminds me of when I would get to visit people at the hospital as a child. It’s not a sad thing I just visited the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital several times as a child for people having babies, or minor procedures. Whenever I went my parents would bribe me with chocolate pudding from the hospitals cafeteria so that I wouldn’t complain about been dragged along to social events. As a five-year-old going to the hospital to listen to adults socialize was not my idea of fun. The memory that the chocolate pudding smell invokes is just the general memory of having visited the hospital in the past. The memory is not a specific memory of any one thing that occurred. Whatever odorant gives chocolate pudding it’s specific smell invokes a strong sense of nostalgia in my every time I encounter it. Oddly seeing pudding does not trigger the memories of visiting the hospital, but the smell of the specific brand does.
When I see Pizza Rolls I am reminded of a specific incident which occurred 10 years ago when I was 15. At a birthday party my friend Mik ate a Pizza Roll only for his girlfriend of the time, Jewell, to point out that they were pepperoni Pizza Rolls. This was a problem because Jewell was a vegetarian and refused to kiss Mik any day that he had eaten meat. It then devolved into an event of him trying to explain that was an accident while we all laughed at him, and Jewell sulked for the rest of the night feeling betrayed. Now every time I see Pizza Rolls I chuckle to myself at the reminder of my two friends fighting because one ate pepperoni by accident. It is a much more specific memory than the smell based memory.
My smell based memory is from an earlier time and it is harder to describe than the visual based memory. The smell based memory occurs every time I encounter the pudding smell, whereas the visual memory only happens on occasion when I see Pizza Rolls, and usually involves some other trigger such as being around friends. Both the visual and smell based memories are positive memories and both relate to food which probably says a bit about me.
It makes sense that the smell based memory occurs every time and is generally vaguer considering that the lateral olfactory tracts touches on the Amygdala. Since the Amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions and memories. The Amygdala gives out a vague memory and emotional response based on the smell input before the brain has a chance to really shape the memory. As the lecture discussed the olfactory bulbs structure results in the brain being bypassed a bit and unconscious reactions can occur.
The visual memory has to go through more parts of the brain in order to illicit an emotional response or trigger a memory and so does not happen as often as the smell based memory. When the visual memory is invoked it is more in depth whereas the smell based memory is more abstract due to the smell based memory not having as much brain power put into framing the memory.
Since the nose and olfactory system are essential the brains probe being exposed to the world it is easier to bypass a large portion of the brain with smells compared to other senses. Smell based memories seem to be less precise, but are easier to invoke. I will likely try to use this knowledge to try and ensure that when I am enjoying something I try to associate a smell along with the visual and audio memories so that I can remember the moment easier. The old saying about stopping to smell the roses seems to be more fitting now.