Close your eyes and imagine the smell of gingerbread, sunscreen, burgers on the grill or pumpkin pie. What comes to mind? Does the smell of burgers take you back to summertime cookouts, music and laughter with friends and family? Does a whiff of pumpkin pie remind you of baking pies in your grandmother’s kitchen for Thanksgiving dinner? When you remember those moments, do you notice a positive shift in your mood?

Psychology professor Chelsea Reid says yes, you should. Recent research shows that nostalgia, the sentimental longing for treasured moments in your past, triggered by smell is restorative and can be used to enhance feelings of social connection.

“What is most fascinating for me, as someone with a research interest in social connections, is that nostalgia is both an intrapersonal experience that occurs within the individual, but it is also interpersonal in nature: the content of nostalgic memories typically involves you in relation to others close to you, particularly at momentous occasions, such as holidays and life milestones,” she says. “One really cool implication of this is that nostalgia could help individuals feel more socially connected [through memory evocation], even when our friends, families and partners aren’t physically present – like when you’re social distancing during a worldwide pandemic, or when you move to a new place where you don’t yet have a social network established.”

Before she came to the College from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned her doctorate, Reid’s research focused on “scent-evoked nostalgia.” The olfactory bulb is linked to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are associated with emotional experience and autobiographical memory, respectively. Of all senses, smell appears to have the most direct route to the brain. For the pilot study, undergraduate students sampled 12 selected scents presented as oils in glass test tubes: Chanel N° 5, Purrs and Paws (a pet perfume), money, eggnog, apple pie, pumpkin pie spice, fresh-cut roses, cappuccino, cotton candy, baby powder, lavender flowers and oceans. For each scent, participants completed a variety of questions, including how nostalgic the scent made them feel. They also reported their level of six different psychological functions, such as social connection, meaning in life and optimism.

“Scent-evoked nostalgia predicted higher levels of several positive psychological functions, including greater positive emotions, self-esteem, feelings of self-continuity, optimism, meaning in life and social connection. So, maybe we should also stop to smell the roses a little more,” says Reid, before pausing to add, “if you happen to have some sort of treasured memory that involves roses, of course.”

Since she’s been at CofC, Reid’s research has shifted from smells to food, and she has worked with eight undergraduates to explore whether food-evoked nostalgia has similar benefits in terms of psychological functions like social connectedness, and if nostalgia might explain why humans tend to find food so comforting. She provided participants with a variety of different flavors of jelly beans, such as caramel corn and buttered popcorn, so that they were consuming and responding to an actual stimulus. That line of research is still ongoing, but Reid says the data so far are promising.

So next time you’re feeling down, you might just add some pumpkin pie scented oil to your diffuser, pop some corn in the microwave and reminisce.

Photo by Mike Ledford