Improving Your Memory For Odors

Some people have keener noses than others, but everyone can improve their sense
of smell by consciously attending to the fragrances and odors in their environment.
Organoleptic analysts (food sniffers) for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
smell and test food for spoilage from dog food to fish. They are swifter and far more
reliable with their nose than any chemical test that could be used. Helen Keller could
identify her friends as they entered the room by their odors alone. Natives in
primitive areas of the world still rely heavily on their sense of smell to seek out prey
and detect possible enemies. Many jungle fighters rely on their sense of smell to gain
an advantage in confrontations. Tuba Mbae, a Paraguayan healer once built up a
flourishing reputation by making diagnoses from smelling the patient's shirts, socks
or underclothing. Oriental medicine still includes smell as part of a standard
When you go into a room full of various scents and aromas, can you discern most
of them? Do you even notice them? Which do you think crackles the brain cells
more, the acknowledging and consciously identifying of different odors in your
environment or the ignoring of those same scents? By heightening your olfactory
awareness, you can conceivably enter a room and tell who had been there before you,
or what was on the stove or what medicines, flowers or perfumes were in the air.
Practicing with this exercise will make you better at odor discernment. Unlike
your other senses though, a good olfactory memory is more quickly acquired, and
stays with you longer, because it shares the same brain center (the limbic system) that
involves your basic emotional responses (pleasure, fear, anger and sex). Olfactory
impulses travel a shorter, more direct route to your brain than do visual and auditory
messages, and they do not criss cross like other neural connections on each side of
the body. Subjects that learned over 100 different household odors from vinegar to
perfume were tested a couple days later and were found to have about a 65% - 70%
retention rate -- and when tested years later, the same percentage existed.
Much of memory concerns state-related associations. In one experiment, students
memorized a given set of words in the presence of a certain odor. When the students
were given the same set of words the next day in the presence of the same odor, they
showed much better recall than a control group learning the same words and exposed
to no odor on either day. With people who have vivid visualization abilities, just
imagining an odor while learning something can work equally as well.
As an exercise, put small quantities of 10 different pipe tobaccos, herbs, spices,gelatin flavors, incense or flower essences into small bottles and give an identifying
label to each. After smelling each one, imagine its odor in your mind connected to
some other sensory image (review "Exercise - Developing Synesthesia"). Ask
yourself, "What does this odor feel, sound or taste like (smell and taste are normally
synesthetically combined anyway when you eat a meal)?" You might create a specific
visual scene that the scent reminds you of; or an auditory or tactile association that
you feel is appropriate for each smell; or connect a color to each odor if that feels
appropriate. Then have your assistant let you smell and identify each bottle again, but
this time while you're blindfolded. Record your score of successes. Mix
combinations of 3 scents together and label each mixture; then identify the separate
scents in each combination while blindfolded. Since the nose becomes rather
desensitized to an odor in a matter of seconds, you can quickly clear your nose by
sticking it into your armpit if you're wearing a natural fabric like wool, cotton or
Next, have your assistant give you a different batch of 10 scents with their
appropriate identification, but this time connect to each one something emotional. For
instance, imagine how horrible the odor would taste; or create a specific emotional
incident in your life to connect with each aroma. (Remember, your basic emotions
and your olfactory brain center share the same limbic neural network, so you may
already associate many odors with certain emotions, from nausea to pleasantries.)
After connecting each identified aroma with something emotional, let your assistant
give you the scents in a mixed way again for you to recall while blindfolded, and see
if your score of successes is better this time.
During the day every time you smell an unfamiliar odor, find out what it was and
commit it to your memory storehouse. Correct identifications of smells and odors
make you more aware of your surroundings, and all connective brain pathways
established in your memory make other areas more accessible and easily usable. The
more you recognize available information in this world, the more adequate and
versatile you become. In emergency situations, many people suffer needless injury
or die simply because of lack of familiarity with the various stimuli and input at hand.
Who knows, having a good memory for odors may save your life one day!