Catch a few notes from a tune or a scent on the breeze, and suddenly you’re back to a memory so vivid that every detail vibrates. Scents and sounds form powerful and long-lasting memories. Brought to literary life by French author Marcel Proust in his madeleine-dipped-in-tea moment from “Remembrance of Things Past,” sense memory is the tiny trigger that launches an involuntary search engine through the human mind.
Human memory is an odd function; research hasn’t caught up yet with how memories are made, stored and retrieved along the superhighways of neurons bundled into the brain.
Voluntary memory recalls information on cue, for an exam or filling in a form; sense memory triggers an immediate involuntary recollection that plunges you back into a forgotten world. A single smell or sound evokes powerful memories. With surprising clarity, you “see” not only long-forgotten details — the pattern on a wallpaper, soft furnishings on a couch, the barking of a dog — but also feel the way you did the first time round. Emotions come flooding back, both good and bad.
Researchers aren’t sure how the association between sounds, scents and memory develops, or why it is so strong. Studies on brain activity may give some answers.
Sense and Memory
The sense of smell is a very primitive sense, which developed as a warning system for early organisms. Complex neural processing associates odors with danger and alerts us to bad food or fire, for example. Although all senses process through the various sensory cortices, smell also has direct access to areas of the limbic system in the brain associated with memory (hippocampus) and emotion (amygdala). These areas show higher brain activity when odor triggers memory compared to a visual cue. Furthermore, the activity is even more powerful for a “personally significant scent.” Perhaps this is the reason why smell evokes such powerful memories.
Sounds are also powerful triggers. Waves gently washing onto a shore bring back memories of a beach holiday, while for many the whine of a dental drill is a less comfortable reminder. Listening is a complex behavior since the input is processed in sequence, with each sound retained for a short time to make sense to the overall pattern. Music activates multiple areas in the brain, spreading beyond the sensory cortex and into the limbic system. Music may be important in memory formation but it is also a strong trigger for bringing memories back. Life history or autobiographical memories come back much faster with music and accompanied by a far greater emotional response. For this reason, music therapy and singing are highly successful tools for treating patients with dementia. Not only do patients enjoy remembering what they have forgotten, but they also feel less anxious and disease progression slows.
Sensory Branding Sets the Mood
With such a strong trigger available to tap into human emotions, it is no surprise that businesses use the power of sense memory for marketing. Pavlov’s dogs drooled at the sound of the bell, even when there was no food; sensory branding can have the same effect on us humans.
Scent and odor cues provoke a faster reaction than visuals. Jingles and catchy tunes elicit the same fast reaction that you get from hearing an emergency siren or a cork pop. These audio logos quickly signal brand presence for instant recognition. Even with your eyes closed, the famous roar lets you know you’re sitting back to enjoy an MGM film.
With sound and scent tied so closely to emotional response, brands can subconsciously intensify the interaction and influence behavior. Retail businesses can target certain demographics, increase buying activity and target purchasing by manipulating the environment. Playing music associated with a more youthful audience encourages younger customers to stay in the store while banishing their older, more financially cautious parents, who feel less comfortable in a younger-focused environment.
Subconsciously “reminding” customers that they might be thirsty, missing home or hungry with scents like coffee, freshly baked bread and chocolate also directs sales.
As a more immersive sensory experience, other brands experiment with targeting all senses. For example, Westin Hotels uses scent along with its brand and décor design elements. It subtly adds the White Tea signature scent through its reception areas to set a brand difference. Guests can then buy scented products to recreate the vacation experience at home, thereby reinforcing the pleasant memories of their hotel stay. Continuing the brand memory even when it’s not around is a powerful marketing tool.
Marketing research suggests that stimulating all senses is a good way to subconsciously influence consumers. Associating scent with the experience makes it a much more powerful memory and one that is more likely to be retained since odor memories persist.
Of course, it’s also possible to overwhelm the senses. Playing fast music at full volume might encourage impulse purchases, but it’s unlikely to keep diners comfortable in a classy restaurant. Likewise, scenting the environment with common allergens may not build many positive brand associations. It pays to show sense with scents and senses.