Odors as effective retrieval cues for stressful episodes

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2014 Jul;112:230-6. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2013.10.004. Epub 2013 Oct 14.


Olfactory information seems to play a special role in memory due to the fast and direct processing of olfactory information in limbic areas like the amygdala and the hippocampus. This has led to the assumption that odors can serve as effective retrieval cues for autobiographic memories, especially emotional memories. The current study sought to investigate whether an olfactory cue can serve as an effective retrieval cue for memories of a stressful episode. A total of 95 participants were exposed to a psychosocial stressor or a well matching but not stressful control condition. During both conditions were visual objects present, either bound to the situation (central objects) or not (peripheral objects). Additionally, an ambient odor was present during both conditions. The next day, participants engaged in an unexpected object recognition task either under the influence of the same odor as was present during encoding (congruent odor) or another odor (non-congruent odor). Results show that stressed participants show a better memory for all objects and especially for central visual objects if recognition took place under influence of the congruent odor. An olfactory cue thus indeed seems to be an effective retrieval cue for stressful memories.

Keywords: Context-effect; HPA axis; Memory; Odor; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Odorants*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Salivary alpha-Amylases / metabolism
  • Smell / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult


  • Salivary alpha-Amylases
  • Hydrocortisone