Pumpkin Spice. Pleasant? Or Not? Here’s Why.

Premier Health Now

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Ahhh. Pumpkin spice. Just a whiff and you’re transported to grandma’s kitchen. Or the family dinner table on Thanksgiving Day. Or Starbucks.

What is it about certain scents that trigger such strong memories? Premier Health Now asked Fadi Tayim, PhD, Division Chief of the Premier Health Brain Mapping Center, to explain.

“The olfactory nerves that process our sense of smell are very closely tied to our brain,” he says. That means that when you smell something familiar, “your brain goes through a process of searching for associations you’ve made with that smell.”

It’s a bit like the search engine on your computer. Your olfactory nerves smell pine needles and your brain immediately does a quick search. Bing! The result may be twinkling lights and holiday music. Or it could be a tent, sleeping bag, and campfire.

“It’s an incredibly complicated process,” says Dr. Tayim. “And it’s different for every person.” Actually, our sense of smell isn’t really that reliable, he adds. “It’s almost the association that goes with that smell that solidifies the memory.”

Not all smells are attached to pleasant memories. A good example is perfume, Dr. Tayim explains. “For many, perfume has a pleasant smell, and may remind you of spring or summer or a special occasion. But if that same perfume was present during a sad or traumatic event, like attending the funeral of a loved one, it can have a negative effect.”

Which means that if you had a serious argument with your friend at Starbucks the first time you got a whiff of pumpkin spice, the aroma may not be pleasant for you like it is for so many others.

Many aromas probably don’t conjure a single memory for you – like the smoke from a burning sage leaf for example. But it’s a powerful aroma for Dr. Tayim. “When I was younger, my mother would always burn a leaf of sage to freshen the house,” he recalls fondly. “And that is something I do in my own house now. That smell evokes so many great memories and it always makes me feel close to my family even though they are in California.” 

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.