Memory for Odors

Memory for Odors

Memory for Odors

Memory for Odors


The power of odors to unlock human memory is celebrated in literature and anecdote, but poorly documented by science. Odors -- perhaps more than other stimuli -- are widely believed to evoke vivid and complex past experiences easily. Yet in contrast to the frequency with which odors are thought to evoke memories of the past, scientific evidence is thus far scant.

For years, voluminous data have been collected on odor sensitivity, whereas relatively few studies exist on memory for odors per se. Moreover, the memory data that do exist are thus far only poorly integrated with the most modern attitudes on human memory. The major goal of this volume is to point the way toward a better state of affairs, one in which the study of odor memory is legitimatized as a proper specialization and is informed by the most promising ideas in the mainstream study of memory. This volume explores three tendencies in modern memory theory that have not yet sufficiently penetrated the odor-memory work: memory coding, memory and knowledge, and implicit and explicit memory.


Beginning at least with the start of modern work on cognition, the question of how sensory experience relates to memory has been central, as shown in the imagery argument in the 1970s and in the pervasive issue of coding starting in the 1960s. Examining memory within a different and, for most of us, unfamiliar modality such as olfaction brings these questions to foreground status even more than they have been in the past, for all sensory modalities give rise to some type of experience and also to some type of memory. How are these related?

Here, we appreciate that knowledge and memory are both representations in the mind (brain) that were not previously available there. Indeed, the olfactory knowledge possessed by individuals such as chefs, wine-tasters, and Japanese Incense Masters is a wondrous kind of expertise to the rest of us. However, our concerns here, with some exceptions, are more with olfactory memory than with olfactory knowledge, the field of memory being concerned with cases where the temporal and spatial context in which an experience occurred are defining attributes of it.

We were led to this project initially by conversations with our colleague William Cain, whose agenda had for some time been to convince workers already committed to olfaction that genuinely cognitive factors indeed had an important influence on performance. We soon . . .

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