Thursday, January 27, 2011

Aromas Inexplicably Popping Into Your Mind

A while back I wrote a post where do you notice that aroma?, in which I talk about priming and the recency effect, the phenomenon by which you are more likely to recognize sensations (including smells) that you've experienced recently: thus, if you ate a peach earlier in the day, you will be more likely to "find" a peach-like aroma in your tea.

Today, I'm writing about a closely related phenomenon: when you've tried something, and, rather than finding a similar-smelling aroma somewhere in your physical environment, you experience a vivid memory of that aroma, in the absence of any clear physical stimulus.

Why do I have a picture of the liberty bell?

I chose a bell to illustrate this phenomenon for the simple reason that, for me at least, a bell is a prime example of a sensory stimulus that remains vividly in memory. Bells are meant to have this effect: they are used to announce the passage of time, or the commencement of an event or gathering, and there is something about the ringing of the bell that makes a person stop and focus on it. I often am able to hear a bell ringing vividly in my mind well after it stops ringing, in contrast to other sounds which are more fleeting in my memory.

Yesterday, I experienced this phenomenon a while after drinking a cup of Rishi Tea's Jade Cloud, which is a green tea I enjoy very much. The tea had long since cleared my palate, and in fact, I had even drunk a cup of chamomile since then. And yet, staring out the window, the aroma of the Jade cloud inexplicably popped back into my mind, vividly, like I had just taken a sip. Why does this happen? I don't know. But I find it fascinating.

A theory about why this happens:

I've noticed that this phenomenon seems to have a limited time-window in which it occurs. It seems to happen most within a range of a few hours after drinking something, and rarely happens more than a day later. Is this an artifact of the way the brain forms memories? Or could there perhaps be a biological purpose for this phenomenon?

One thing that I think about a lot is the process of developing and changing our taste preferences based on our experiences with eating different foods and drinking different beverages. The natural environment that humans are adapted to live in is one in which there are many strange, poisonous substances. But being open to locate and identify new food sources, as well as helpful medicinal plants, would have a clear survival advantage. I have a theory that this phenomenon of aromas popping into our head is actually part of an innate mechanism which helps us to not only identify new food sources, but identify different medicinal plants, and to some degree, identify their function as well.

We often have a natural aversion to new tastes, but warm up to them slowly as we try new substances and feel good after eating them. Perhaps this phenomenon of aromas popping into the head is a way for the brain to check in and connect the aroma of the food or drink to the way we feel, forming an association between the outcome (the state of our body) and the possible cause (the new, unfamiliar substance we've recently consumed).

If we feel nauseous or out of balance, the brain will make a note and we may feel nauseous next time we encounter that aroma. If we feel any other way, such as peaceful, alert, thirsty, hungry, or some other way, the brain will note this as well. Then, when later presented with the substance, we would receive a signal from our brains about how we could expect to feel after eating or drinking it. As such, our brains would have the remarkable capacity to develop the ability for us to seek out food, drink, and substances that keep our body in balance.

This is just a theory. But it fits with everything I have experienced in my life, and with a lot of things that I know about science. What do you think? Is it too far-fetched? Or do you think there's something in this idea?

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