Smelling familiar scents might help depressed individuals in their recovery, a recent study revealed. Researchers found that familiar scents could be more powerful than words in bringing depressed people out of negative thoughts.
Familiar scents facilitate the recall of specific autobiographical memories in people with depression that could help in their recovery, according to the study published in Jama Network Open by a research team from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Kymberly Young, senior author of the study, said, “It’s not that depressed patients don’t have memories — it’s that they’re having trouble accessing them.”
“It was surprising to me that nobody thought to look at memory recall in depressed individuals using odor cues before,” she added.
The study involved 32 participants identified with clinical depression. They were given glass vials with 24 familiar odor samples, which were pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
After smelling each vial, participants were asked to recall a specific memory from their lives in response to the cue. The same experiment was repeated using 24 words that described each smell.
The researchers noted that memory recall was stronger in depressed individuals when they received odor cues in comparison to word cues. Approximately 68% of the participants could recall specific memories in response to odors, in contrast to 52% who could recall specific memories when presented with word cues.
“Odor-cued memories were rated overall as more vivid and more arousing than memories cued with words,” the researchers wrote. The memories were more specific with odor cues, while word cues brought out more general memories.
Although the participants were not instructed to specifically recall positive memories, the findings indicated a tendency for them to remember positive events. The researchers now plan to explore the reason behind the association between certain smells and positive memories for people with depression.
“If we improve memory, we can improve problem-solving, emotion regulation, and other functional problems that depressed individuals often experience,” Young said.
A limitation of the study is that the researchers did not include a healthy control group. The sample size is also relatively small.