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Surprising Science

One Sniff and You’re Transported Back in Time. Why Is That?

Biologist Stuart Firestein talks about the connection between smells, tastes, and memory.
Remember? (+gAbY+)

You’re not especially thinking about the past or anything when a certain scent wafts in and — bam — you’re suddenly transported back to a precious moment from your past in a way that feels as nearly real as a memory can feel. For just a second or so, you’re there. It’s strange how smells summon memories in a way that goes beyond the capabilities of other senses. Photos are great for looking back, as are videos and audio recordings, but nothing hits us as instantly or vividly as a remembered smell. Only our sense of taste — working together with our olfactory system — carries a comparable wallop, and it’s mostly about things we don’t want to remember.

Here’s what scientists have figured out so far about the powerful connection between smell, taste, and memory. Biologist Stuart Firestein works with the olfactory receptor neuron as a platform for understanding the interactions between various chemicals and the brain.

Of course, in trying to understand the connection between smell, taste, and memory, a new mystery link appears: The one between emotion and memory.


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