It’s pumpkin spice latte season, and whether you love or hate this classic festive beverage, you can’t deny that there is a nostalgic power to its sweet brew. To explore why exactly we love pumpkin spice so much, a pair of perception researchers from John Hopkins University decided to look at the science behind the drink.
Researcher Sarah Cormiea explains that smells trigger memories more vividly than any other sense, and the hues of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger in pumpkin spice lattes remind us of cozy autumn memories and makes it feel like fall even if the weather hasn’t quite started to turn yet.
It’s not just smelling pumpkin spice that activates our nostalgia. Cormiea explains that just reading the words “pumpkin spice” activates the piriform cortex, the area of the brain that processes olfactory stimuli. The piriform cortex is also very close to the part of the brain which stores memories, strongly linking smell and recollection.
The link between pumpkin spice and fall in our minds is part of the reason that pumpkin spice reminds us of pumpkins and fall, even though there’s technically no pumpkin on the ingredient list. This is the same reason why we might not have as strong of a reaction to this latte if we aren’t told exactly what it is. The name, smell, and associated memories are all interconnected and all play a role.
“Pumpkin might not be on the ingredient list,” said Jason Fischer, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, “but we can vividly experience it nonetheless. Our minds are very good at filling in missing details, guided by the associations that smells have in memory.”