What Is The Limbic System, And How Does It Play A Role In Scent?

Limbic System & Scent

The limbic system is a group of brain structures that work together to facilitate behavioral, emotional, and survival responses. The limbic system essentially acts as a control center to bridge the gap between our psychological and physiological experiences.

There are several parts to the limbic system: the thalamus helps with motor signals and keeps us conscious and alert; the hypothalamus regulates hunger, thirst, and mood; the basal ganglia plays a role in reward processing, habit formation, and learning.

There are two main structures to our limbic system—the hippocampus and amygdala. The hippocampus is our brain’s memory center. The amygdala plays a role in forming emotional responses and attaches emotions to our memories to help them stick. Both of these parts of our limbic system have a connection to scent. 

How the Limbic System And Scent Are Connected

When you smell a scent, it travels from the olfactory bulb to the limbic system in our brains where memories and emotions are sorted, processed, and cataloged. 

Because the hippocampus is our memory vault, it lets us associate scent with memories, so every time you have an experience, it’s not just logged as a memory, but it’s also linked with a scent. You can thank your limbic system if you associate the smell of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies with memories of baking with your grandma, or if you think of your ex-partner every time you smell a certain cologne or perfume.  

Scent can influence our emotions via the amygdala. The amygdala also helps our survival instincts by generating fear-based memories and helping us respond accordingly. For example, we hear a loud noise, so we feel startled, or smell gas so we turn off our stove’s burner. 

How the Limbic System-Scent Connection Is Beneficial 

By now you probably understand that scent’s connection to our memories and emotions is valuable. The connection can be harnessed for good as well by either allowing us to access positive memories and be calm and relaxed or work through negative emotions. Scent can be a helpful tool in exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy by helping people navigate conditions such as PTSD and phobias. More and more research is also showing how scent may help with anxiety and depression. For example, one review study found that lavender has the potential to reduce anxiety, stabilize mood, and promote better sleep. This research also showed that these scents offer physiological benefits because they are inhaled through the nose and travel to the limbic system where they deliver messages to our brain. 

The bottom line: our limbic system is a powerful connector between our mind and body. By leveraging the power of scent, we can influence our limbic system to associate memories with a certain scent, learn new fears or lessen old phobias, sharpen our survival instincts, improve our memory, and even strengthen emotional attachments. 

Inhale by OVR offers immersive scent technology that can send even stronger signals to our limbic system by combining scent with imagery and sounds. This sensory experience can alter our “reality” and signal our limbic system that it’s time to relax, focus, or create new memories.

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