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Memory and the Senses: Which One is Strongest?

By Christian Roemer

Humans have 5 major senses that we use to perceive the world: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Each of these senses play a vital role in helping us navigate our world safely, and they all help us create memories. Are memories made by the senses created equally? Let’s find out.

As we’ve learned in past articles, scientists aren’t exactly sure how memories are made and stored. They do pretty much know that memories are mainly stored in the hippocampus, a small region of the brain that sits right at the top of the spinal column. What does that have to do with sense perception and memory? Maybe a bunch.

First, let’s do a ranking of how the senses stack up in regards to memory recall:

  1. Smell - Certain smells can trigger vivid memories almost instantaneously.
  2. Taste - Taste is closely linked to smell, so it also has a powerful connection to memory, though not quite as strong as your schnoz.
  3. Touch - This sense is more than just reaching out your hand and interpreting texture. Feeling certain ways can bring out old memories.
  4. Sight - Sorry, eyeballs, even though most people consider you the most important sense, you’re not high on the list of memory retrieval.
  5. Sound - We all love music and we use sound to communicate, but it’s actually the worst sense for recalling memories.

So, now we know how the different senses stack up. Smell is the most likely to give you a Sunday stroll through memory lane, and sounds aren’t really going to do much for you. But why is that? Well, let’s take a look.

Remember how we said earlier that memories are stored in a region of the brain called the hippocampus? Well, that actually has a pretty big impact in why your sense of smell is most likely to make you recall vivid memories. When you smell something, the sensation travels through your nose, next to the amygdala (which creates emotions) and the hippocampus (where your memories are stored) before ultimately arriving at your thalamus. That means that every smell you perceive passes through the memory and emotion parts of the brain first before you actually smell it.

That’s why, if you smell a fresh cup of coffee first thing in the morning, it might make you think about watching cartoons on the couch with your parents when you were little. Because of the way you perceive smells, you probably had it coded as a memory and created an emotion from it before you even consciously smelled it.

Since taste is so closely related to your sense of smell, it’s easy to see why it comes in a close second. Touch is also fairly intuitive. Have you ever accidentally touched something slimy and instantly thought about a nasty slug you saw on the wall once?

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