woman drinking hot beverage

Close your eyes, take a deep breath — and imagine the aroma of warm apple cider, fresh baked pies, and a stuffed turkey roasting. If you’re like most people, these fragrant holiday traditions will immediately take you back in time to happy celebrations spent with family and friends.

The holidays offer a rich source of smells that stir powerful memories of the past. In fact, the scents that waft from certain foods, plants, candles, and other items create an intimate link between our emotions and our past, says Rachel Herz, Ph.D., an expert in the psychological science of smell and the author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell.

Why are scents so deeply connected to our emotions and nostalgia? It has a lot to do with the biology of our brain.

Our sight, hearing, and other senses send signals to the “thinking” part of our brain for processing. But our sense of smell is directly linked to the deep part of the brain that stores memories and processes emotions. There, the brain forges a strong bond between scent and specific memories.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

How It Works

  • Neurons in your nose detect the odor and send signals to the brain.
  • Olfactory bulbs in the brain decode the signals.
  • The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system — an area so closely associated with memory that it’s often referred to as the “emotional brain.”
  • The system includes the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for “associative learning”.

Simply put, we learn to associate a particular smell with a particular event — like the smell of baking holiday cookies at Grandma’s house. The scent — as well as the memory and emotion it recalls — stick with us for life.

Feelings evoked by holiday smells have special meaning to us because of the personal connection we have with them. Those aromas can instantly transport us down memory lane with multiple emotions and vivid mental images for the place or person we associate with the smells. Many of these memories trace back to our early childhood; in fact, some researchers believe our sense of smell and our reaction to them begin in the womb.

So this holiday season, raise a toast to the many heartwarming and unforgettable moments your sense of smell has inspired throughout your life. And here’s to creating many more this holiday season!

About Neurosurgery

The UPMC Department of Neurosurgery is the largest academic neurosurgical provider in the United States. We treat conditions of the brain, skull base, spine, and nerves, including the most complex disorders. We perform more than 11,000 procedures each year, making our team one of the most experienced in the world. Whether your condition requires surgery or not, we strive to provide the most advanced, complete care possible. Our surgeons are developing new techniques and tools, including minimally invasive treatments. Find an expert near you.