Everybody knows smells can evoke vivid memories. You might hear a tune and struggle to place it, or see a face and not quite be able to summon the corresponding name, but catch a whiff of meat cooking on a distant grill and your mind will instantly cue up a decades-old but sharply recollected summer cookout.
While these involuntary blasts of intense nostalgia are the most obvious examples of the power of scent, the link between pungent odors and memories functions in subtle ways throughout our daily lives. These associations can even affect our habits and behaviors in ways most of us take for granted. If you understand how these associations form, though, you can intentionally use them to help you build new habits.
Every habit begins with a cue. Often these cues come from our environment, like how the aroma of coffee may alert you that it’s time to work, or how the odor of metal and sweat in a gym might get your brain ready to exercise. For a lot of us, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic stripped away the environmental cues that drove our behavior in the outside world and replaced them with the much smaller roster of triggers inside our homes, making habit formation difficult. I solved this problem for myself with intentional olfactory conditioning, and you should be able to apply the same process as you work to establish new routines.
How I Pavlov’d myself into being a functional person
In 2021 I moved out of the apartment where I’d spent the first year of the pandemic and into a new place with its own smells, hoping to shake off the stasis of lockdown and get a fresh start. But when I took my first shower in my new home with the same Cremo Bourbon and Oak soap I’d used before, I realized I associated the smell of that soap with being stuck in my apartment for months. I had intended to form new habits, but I had brought a cue for old habits with me, and the scent memory just made me want to lie down and take a nap. So I got new soap, free from any emotional associations, then wrote an article about how to use it.
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I no longer go to a gym, and without the scent cue of metal and sweat, I found it difficult to exercise at home. I needed a new cue for the habit. Now, I apply Arm and Hammer Fresh before my home workouts, because my brain now associates that smell with swinging a kettlebell around in the yard. By the end of the workout, that deodorant’s scent is long gone, but lasting freshness isn’t what I use it for.
Before I sat down to write this article, I brewed a cup of coffee and sprayed my wrists with Duke Cannon’s Lincoln cologne scent. I do this every time I sit down to work. Even in the best of times, the struggle with working from home is that it can blur boundaries between work life and home life to an extent that makes it hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins. Given that the desk where I work is the same place where I play video games when that work is done, scent association has made it dramatically easier to shift gears between the roles of the multipurpose spaces in my home. When I smell Lincoln, my brain knows it is time to open Google Docs rather than Steam. When this article is complete, I’ll wash away the cologne as I wash my hands to prepare making dinner, at which point its scent will likely be replaced with a great deal of garlic.
Why the link between scent and memory is so strong
Most sensory input gets routed through the thalamus, a neurological structure that helps relay signals throughout the frontal cortex of the brain. When you smell something, however, that input skips the frontal cortex entirely. A separate structure called the olfactory bulb takes everything you smell straight to a region of the brain’s limbic system called the piriform cortex, which straddles the hippocampus and amygdala. Adjacent to the piriform cortex, the hippocampus handles spatial memory and learning, while the amygdala handles episodic memory and emotional processing. This summary is extraordinarily reductive, of course, but these bits of our biology are what interact most with scent memory. What this means is that when you smell something, the memory of it goes deep into your brain and stays there, with all associated emotions and places inextricably linked.
Studies have shown that scent-induced nostalgia causes stronger positive psychological effects than merely reminiscing about the same memory. It’s one cognitive process to think about grandma’s cooking, and a whole other thing to smell it all over again. In the same way, it’s one cognitive process to think “I should work out,” and a whole other thing to smell the gym—or the deodorant you’ve tricked your brain into associating with kettlebell swings.
How you can use smells to form new habits
First, identify the habit you intend to change. In my case, it was reestablishing pre-pandemic habits that had become much more difficult without their original environmental cues. Consider whether the habit has a scent association that needs to be replaced, or if you need to find one. You can also employ different scents at different times to delineate the varied purposes of a single space—like I do with my desk.
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Once you’ve determined where a scent cue needs to be, you’ll need to find a fragrance that is appropriate for the habit. For example, I use cheap sport deodorant for athletics, and a cologne that smells like getting a haircut in an office supply store for work. You could light a particular candle when you intend to meditate, or use a room spray to indicate work is done for the day and your home is a place of leisure once again.
Then, the most important part: consistently follow through on the action you intend to associate with that scent so the association becomes deeply lodged in your limbic system. Make sure not to use an intentionally associated scent for anything else—don’t use your favorite fragrance for going out on the town to cue you to get to work, for example.
One final tip: if you pursue this, make sure you have a dedicated scent to cue rest and relaxation, not just work habits or productivity. I have a bottle of cologne I save for days when I am truly doing absolutely nothing, and while its bottle is much more full than the work cologne, I always look forward to the next time I get to smell it.