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The scents of Christmas past – the relationship between memory and olfaction

On October 2 Michael Bender (PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Psychology, Tilburg University, the Netherlands) took part in the "Culture matters" research seminar with the report "The scents of Christmas past – the relationship between memory and olfaction".

Folk wisdom often refers to odours as potent triggers for autobiographical memory, akin to the Proust phenomenon that describes Proust’s sudden recollection of a childhood memory when tasting a madeleine dipped into tea. Despite an increasing number of empirical studies on the effects of odours on cognition, conclusive evidence is still missing. We set out to examine the effectiveness of childhood and non-childhood odours as retrieval cues for autobiographical memories in a lab experiment. A total of 170 participants were presented with pilot-tested retrieval cues (either odours or images) to recall childhood memories and were then asked to rate the vividness, detail, and emotional intensity of these memories. Results showed that participants indeed reported richer memories when presented with childhood-related odours than childhood-related images or childhood-unrelated odours or images. An exploratory analysis of memory content with Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count did not reveal differences in affective content. The findings of this study support the notion that odours are particularly potent in eliciting rich memories and open up numerous avenues for further exploration. We conclude by presenting avenues and first data to assess the link between olfaction in a hypothetical (imagined odors) design in cross-cultural comparison in the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey.