I’m not a big fan of bananas. But this weekend at the grocery store, I spied banana-scented hair conditioner. My curiosity got the better of me. I opened the container, kind of surreptitiously, as most of us do when we are trying to inspect a product before deciding to make a purchase. I tentatively sniffed at it.
This stuff smelled... incredible! But why? I only eat bananas when my stomach is upset, to calm it down. However, it had me instantly thinking of suntan lotion and family trips to Daytona Beach, and some product my mother used to use (which I no longer remember).
Olfactory memory, or the memory of smells, works differently than other memories involving sight, sound, touch, and taste. These memories are relayed by the thalamus to the hippocampus, where memories are stored, and then go to the amygdala for emotional processing.
Scents, on the other hand, are not processed by the thalamus. The olfactory bulb handles them immediately, and has a direct connection to the amygdala and hippocampus—bypassing the thalamus in processing. Also, the olfactory bulb has a structure called the piriform cortex, where memories are stored directly, with the help of the orbitofrontal cortex. 
Why is this so fascinating?
Well, I don’t like bananas. Yet, this scent unlocked positive memories for me. My memory works fine. However, for a person with memory impairment, olfactory memory is a great route to try to reach and engage a person more deeply, since olfactory memory uses different neural pathways than the other senses to access memory processing.
The banana conditioner is a good example because sometimes not much is known about what a person was like before they came to live in a long term care facility, and their disease may have progressed to a point where they are no longer able to communicate preferences in traditional ways. You may not know what they like or don’t like, but by using scent, positive connections and pleasant moments together can still make an enormous difference in their quality of life.
Have you integrated scent into your care planning? What methods and scents do you use?
Amber Dennis is a staff writer and personal biographer for LifeBio, where she helps record personal histories. Before working for LifeBio, Amber worked for a number of years in customer service, and also worked in nursing homes and home care as an STNA. She holds a BA in History from Otterbein University.