Does Food Bring Back Memories?

By Amanda Roland

Much of our day is scheduled around food. Breakfast before school, lunch breaks at work, drinks after dinner. Meeting for breakfast, lunch or dinner is commonplace for social as well as professional interactions. Entire cultures are known for their specialty foods and for their family time during meals. Memories of certain times in ones life can be brought back in an instance just from the smell and taste of food.

Does Food Hold Memories?

There is just something about nourishing someone’s body that also feeds the soul, just ask your Grandma. We even have terms like “comfort food” to describe particular dishes that we associate with what we need to make us feel good. Your mother’s homemade chicken soup when you are sick or your sister’s homemade gingerbread cookies at Christmas time. Foods have an uncanny way of taking us back to another place and time; much like hearing an old song on the radio can transport you back to your high school days driving over to the beach or the smell of Old Spice reminds you of your Grandfather.

We associate eating certain foods with memories. It might be turkey and dressing that makes you think of the holidays of your youth or the pizza by the slice from your hometown that brings back memories of your college days. How does it work? How does food bring back such vivid memories?

What does science say?

Associative Memory is the scientific answer. Eating food activates all of our senses: smell, taste, touch, sight and even hearing (hello cracking crab legs). While all of these work together when we eat, smell and taste play the largest roles. An article by Michael Richardson from Brain Facts explains how they relate to memory: “The olfactory bulb and the insular cortex are closely connected to the amygdala, an area involved in emotional learning. The olfactory nerve is similarly close to the hippocampus, one of the most important brain structures for memory.” In other words, the hippocampus is the part of the brain where memories are stored.

An article from Psychology Today further explains that associative memory is connected to the limbic system, which is in control of all the memories stored within the hippocampus. The process starts when your sensory organs transmit a signal to your brain which then are transmitted to the associative portion of the brain called the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is connected to the amygdala which is responsible for emotions and then the signal travels to the hippocampus, which is where the memory becomes apparent.

Science explained, we can all relate to those feelings of familiarity when tasting something we have had in the past. We usually assume these will be feelings of happy nostalgia, but they can also represent a negative connotation. If you’ve ever developed a stomach virus after eating a particular food you may vow to never eat it again. Tasting it again may reinforce those negative memories. When I was pregnant, I got sick after eating a charcoal grilled hamburger, and now every time I taste that charbroiled taste, I feel ill.

With our memories and emotions being so closely tied to the senses involved with eating it makes perfect sense why we specifically choose to visit our old favorite hometown restaurants. It is why certain foods become staples for game day or why you always go to the same ice cream parlor when on vacation. You can take a trip down memory lane anywhere you are just by eating the associated food to the time you want to remember.