Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Your Brain on Smells: Memory, Emotion, and Scent

In my approximately 30 years on Earth, I have developed many allergies. Some I've had since the beginning (e.g., lactose intolerance), others I discovered much later (e.g., aspartame, the chemical name of Nutrasweet). While I would love to explore what the heck is up with all these crazy allergies, I'm instead writing about what happened as a result of my latest allergy discovery. I recently learned that I'm allergic to an ingredient in a product I use pretty regularly (for the sake of brevity, I won't go into detail); this ingredient is so commonly used in this product that to get a product free of this stuff, I had to go to Whole Foods.

First of all, never go grocery shopping hungry. I've been told this before, but had to break my rule this time because of scheduling constraints. Second - and this rule is even more important than the first - never go to Whole Foods hungry - ever! Going to my regular grocery store hungry is bad enough; everything looks so appealing and tasty. Whole Foods is something else. Not only is the store very visually appealing, it smells how I think Heaven will smell. When you walk through produce, you smell the vegetables. The fish smells like fish (the good, fresh kind - the way fish is supposed to smell). The cheese section... need I go on?

Not only did I want to eat everything in sight, I savored the smells so much that I think I fell in love. Yes, I might have fallen in love with Whole Foods.

This, of course, got me thinking about psychology. But then, everything makes me think of psychology, so perhaps we should be more concerned if I walked out of Whole Foods thinking nothing more than, "I'm in love."

Our brains are fascinating. I really mean it. Our brains are just about the coolest invention ever. Not only are they highly efficient, processing machines (that definitely make important, but predictable, errors), so many of the systems are interconnected in really amazing ways. The connection among smells, memory, and emotions is one example.

To really briefly summarize, the lowest parts of our brains are the parts that developed (evolutionarily) first. They handle the basic functions: breathing, sleeping/waking, etc. These very basic functions are handled by parts of the brains directly connected to our brain stems. As you get farther up in the brain and away from the brain stem, you get to the higher functioning systems that developed last. Our olfactory bulb, which is involved in perception of smells, is on the under part of our brain, close to our nose. So one of the first systems to develop, but slightly higher up the chain than breathing.

The olfactory bulb is the yellow structure above the nasal cavity.
Because of the location of the olfactory bulb, it is closely tied into the limbic system, a region in the middle of your brain that contains (among other structures) the hippocampus (involved in storage of memories) and the amygdala (involved in emotion) - the reward pathway I discussed in my very first blog post resides in this region.

It should come as no surprise then that emotions, memory, and smells are closely related, and that stimulation of one of these systems (such as the one for memory) can activate another system (such as emotion). Certainly, memories elicit emotions (you remember an event that made you happy, and you feel happy again), and emotions can elicit memories.

But what about smells? Ever smell something and suddenly find yourself thinking of an event from childhood? Pumpkin pie, turkey, certain candies - these all remind me of holidays at home and feeling happy. Certain flowers, particularly those in my bridal bouquet, remind me of my wedding day.

Which is probably why I felt this strong feeling of love. As I was entering Whole Foods, I smelled the exact flowers from my bouquet. And of course, being a foodie, the other fantastic food smells certainly gave me something to savor. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, "I like food... a lot." All of these wonderful emotions, memories, and smells combined to make me think I love Whole Foods.

Wait, you mean I'm not actually in love with Whole Foods? What am I going to do with all these love poems?!

Thoughtfully yours,

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