Photo of a group of lilac flowers

Olfaction, Plants, and World Memory

All aromatic plants release microscopic volatile molecules, compounds that likely evolved to attract pollinators. These complex chemical mixtures stimulate human olfactory receptors that detect the molecules and send the information via electrical signals to the brain for identification. The limbic system that processes smells is intertwined with brain structures responsible for emotions, memory, learning, performance and creativity. These consciously and unconsciously affect mood, feelings, and behavior, which is why smell is such a powerful sense. 

Within our brains, smell and memory are a team. How smells affect us depends on our conditioned responses – preferences determined by associative learning through cultural immersion. This process begins earlier than one might think. By the third trimester, a baby’s brain is processing the chemical stimuli of smells and tastes. After birth, children often show preferences for food the mother consumed during pregnancy. Also influential are smells the mother inhaled. Research has found that aromatic chemicals can be detected in amniotic fluid within seconds, meaning the chemicals of the external sensory environment begin forming our preferences in utero. We are born pre-conditioned to our chemical culture and environment, creating an emotional connection to our early homes.

The link between smell and memory is common and essential to all human beings. Smelling grass, pine trees, or jasmine in the night air, can automatically bring back memories from years or decades ago. The cultural research of the World Sensorium project provided strong evidence of powerful human-plant relationships, and the impact of their characteristic scents.

The sensory experience of flavor is mostly from smell. When one chews food, aromatic molecules travel to the back retro-nasal area of the nasal epithelium where olfactory receptors are held. World Sensorium is full of edible plants whose molecules have been transmitted to the olfactory bulb in the brain and have guided human behavior for centuries.