My Grandma was the best cook. I know I’m not the first person to believe that about ‘Grandma’ (or Nona, Nana, Gran, Memaw, and etc.), but in my case, it’s the truth. She baked cookies and squares, bread and cakes, and in spite of having a folder of her recipes written in her own hand; I have failed utterly to replicate the smell and taste I remember. Her delicious, simple chocolate chip cookie is one of the most delicious smells I vividly recall. When the batch of cookies was in the oven, the kitchen was a delightful cloud of vanilla, chocolate, sugar and buttery smells. When the cookies came out they were a little bit rounded and pale on top, just brown on the bottom, and oh so soft and chewy and sweet. Those aromas bring back such fond memories that it's not difficult to understand why the sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses that we have.
Wherever you come from, you can likely conjure a similar memory experience. The smell of something baking in the oven or over a fire evokes a sense of security, comfort, and family. Why are we so emotionally connected with the smell of baked goods? It turns out that our sense of smell does much more than help to identify an object; it actually triggers emotional responses and subsequent behaviors. That is why our sense of smell is so critical to the way we experience the world around us, and how we respond to it. Memory is the receptacle for all we sense, and smells have a strong and potent relationship with the things we remember.
Scents, Memory and the Brain
Memories built upon a scent experience lure us further back into our childhoods than any others. In fact, memories of scent have been shown to develop in the womb. Our brains capture scents like butterflies in a net. We can re-experience an entirely forgotten moment in our lives if the connecting scent is present. The technical term for this is olfactory evoked recall, and it begins in the brain.
It is the storied Limbic System of the human brain that is responsible for this phenomenon. This system developed in our ancient ancestors long before other brain functions, likely to identify danger, and alert early human to edible and poisonous plants. In the modern brain, the sense of smell follows different neural pathways from all of our other senses. Taste, touch, hearing and sight: all of these are meditated through the thalamus, whereas smells travel a separate path directly to the olfactory bulb. This site decodes, organizes, and then filters smells to other regions of the brain; for example to the hippocampus, where they may be stored as long-term memory. A familiar scent, even decades old, draws out long buried memories. Interestingly, scientists believe women have a superior sense of smell owing to the fact that their olfactory receptors possess more brain cells than are found in men!
Still, it may seem strange that it is smell, and not taste, that has such a powerful place in terms of our memories, and according to Health Guidance, this is particularly true of the smell of baked goods. This is in part because our sense of taste is almost completely dependent on smell. I’m sure you are familiar with the sensation of eating when you have a head cold. Your mouth registers the coldness of orange juice, and the mushy texture of chicken noodle soup, but food without smell tastes of virtually nothing. This is because the sense of taste is actually very limited in its reach. It is capable of recognizing sensations: we can identify sweet and sour flavors, as well as bitterness and saltiness, but not much else using only the receptors in our mouths. The more complex subtleties of flavor are detected using the receptors in our nasal passages. Maybe this is why the smell of certain foods affects us so deeply.
Nostalgia and Memory
The emotions that bakery scents evoke are often nostalgic. In other words, the smells cause us to fondly remember and long for a time in the past. This is partly because such memories are formed in our childhoods, a time when most of us are carefree and cared for by others. Scents we recall from childhood: bubbling rhubarb pie, bread rising on a sunlit windowsill, or molasses and nutmeg in a rich gingerbread, send us swooning over days long since passed. As we experience the nostalgia, we feel our mood lift. Research demonstrates a direct connection between positive mood and positive, productive behaviors. A researcher describes the effect of an experiment that exposed individuals to pleasant and unpleasant scents; “When people were exposed to an odor they liked creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odor condition.” Likewise, experiencing a pleasant odor enhances productivity, altruism and sociability. What a wonderful artifact of sensation! Humans might actually behave more respectfully towards each other when exposed to the smell of baking shortbread or mince tarts! Imagine the possibilities of placing a bakery inside prison walls, or in a ghetto, or on an airplane. If the smell of baking has such an uplifting result, I say “a bakery on every street corner!”.
Bakery Scents for a Better World
I love baking bread, but sometimes just don't make it a priority. So, any chance I have to bring the scent of baked goods into my home, I will take. Thinking of creating a more sociable, peaceful and productive home? Perhaps a cinnamon bun scented candle would do the trick! Using scent is a smart way to gently nudge your family and friends into a pleasant mood, and more humane behaviors. Hey, even a teen entrepreneur, the creator of SensorWake, ran with the idea that aroma can both awaken you (a spin on the traditional morning alarm) and impact your mood as you start your day. I think that's brilliant, and obviously, so did Fox News when they featured the story. Take a look at the video for more on SensorWake.