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News Item: Neuroscience

Newborns & Smell Memories [1]

Recent research demonstrates that within the first week of life, newborn babies encode olfactory (smell) memories of their mother’s milk when nursing and retain a preference for that odor up to a year later.  The research, described in Science News [1], provided evidence of infants’ ability at a very early age to associate particular smells with positive experiences, forming memories that stay with them.

What might this mean for smells associated with negative experiences?  One symptom of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder involves re-experiencing the original horror, with all it’s associated feelings and thoughts, when confronted with anything reminiscent of it.  Just as the smell of cookies baking in the oven can elicit fond images of other times, the scent of the perpetrator’s cologne or body odor, clean (or dirty) bed sheets, or anything else, can trigger the switch on the time machine of PTSD, catapulting the unsuspecting survivor into a sensory and emotional state that’s enough to make one feel ambushed and crazy.

So much is encoded before language parts of the brain develop.  Survivors of childhood sexual abuse (and other forms of abuse and neglect) struggle with symptoms that erode their hard-won self esteem because of how beyond conscious control these triggered states can be.  It can help to know it’s a brain thing.  Babies are learning sponges that absorb everything that happens to them and goes on around them, and they learn in a visceral way that eludes ordinary cognitive memory in adult years.  Memories of abuse and neglect from the first years of life can wreak a particular havoc because of their preverbal nature.