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I was compelled to write this blog when I had a scent inspired experience last week…I was doing a bit of impulse shopping, minding my own business and suddenly someone briskly marched past me and I had a strong waft of their perfume, I don’t know what perfume it was but in that one second I was transported back to a sunny day of my childhood.
It was a blistering hot summers day, I’d guess I was about 7 or 8 years old and I’d been playing in the garden with my brother. As usual he was forcing me to ‘play’ soccer and be his goalkeeper while he fired the ball at me. One too many on target shots later and the ball whacked me in the face and I fell over. My Grandmother had heard my yelp and come out to console me. The scent of her perfume and her calming words were soothing me as she wrapped me in her arms and made all the pain go away. That one lady’s perfume in a shop had brought such a clear memory back to me, and all because of a single scent.
Isn’t it bizarre, or really perhaps quite amazing that small airborne molecules can trigger such memories and also such vivid emotion? One small waft of a person’s perfume has the ability to carry your thoughts all the way back to a distinct memory of your childhood. Scents have a way of evoking powerful emotional memories and vivid cases of déjà vu. And quite often these are of memories that we have completely forgotten about and are of distant times gone by. After my experience while shopping I wanted to know what it was that makes a smell trigger such strong sentiments, so I did a little bit of digging.
Howard Eichenbaum, director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology at Boston University explains1 that when we smell something, it enters the nose and then travels through the olfactory bulb. As the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system (which is the emotional center of the brain), it can access emotional memories via the amygdala, which is an almond shaped nuclei, and has been proven to play a principal role in processing memories and emotional reactions. All very scientific sounding, but it sort of makes sense.
So it’s the amygdala that triggers our memories, but why do the memories that are aroused by our sense of smell tend to be fond and happy recollections? Dr Alan Hirsch a US neurologist believes the emotions that are recalled from a smell are far more important than the details that are conjured. This is because, he states, our minds reshape these memories, sending them through a rose-tinted filter that redefines them as “good times”2 this is probably due to them representing times gone by that are now gone forever. So the painful ball hitting my head when my brother tried to score has been washed away and the scent of my Grandmother’s perfume just reminds me of the warmth of her hug and the nostalgic happy memories of childhood.
There have been numerous research studies carried out to determine the link between smell and memories. But even without the research it is obvious that smell is a very strong sense indeed. It strikes us all at some point, be it the smell of freshly baked cocoa cakes reminding you of school bake sales, the smell of recently cut grass reminiscent of the long summer holidays in the country, or sweet smelling rose evoking memories of your mother getting ready for an evening out. Our sense of smell is one of the most, if not the most, memory inducing sense we have, embrace it and enjoy the scents that provoke your sweetest memories.
Source 1. Meghan Holohan, Smells like nostalgia: Why do scents bring back memories? July 19, 2012. (http://www.nbcnews.com/health/smells-nostalgia-why-do-scents-bring-back-memories-895521)
Source 2. BBC Science: Human Body & Mind (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/intelligenceandmemory/nostalgicsmells.shtml)