Don’t Remember Much?

Memories can be brought to life again through the sense of smell.

--image by Brooks Russell on Flickr

–image by Brooks Russell on Flickr

“I remember holding my first baby in my arms. This was back in 1943, November. The nurse had just settled my child, my baby, into my arms, and I was inspecting all those fingers and toes I had been making for nine months. My husband arrived—he’d been stationed overseas and had missed the birth. He burst into the room, still in uniform, to make my day absolutely perfect. He had brought a dozen yellow roses. You know, I haven’t thought of that in years.”

This woman, at the end of her life, has been telling her life story to a friend who comes each day to visit her. She’s been talking for some days about who was whose son or daughter and what everybody did for a living, nothing with any feeling in it. Today, the friend brought a rose, fresh cut from her garden. And today this woman’s life history has opened up like a flower.

Scent does this: Memories that otherwise are beyond reach can be brought to life again, sometimes in astonishing detail.

Scent Memories

Listen to these reminiscences:

  • “I took a walk yesterday and passed by a guy mowing his lawn. The smell of that fresh-cut grass gave me this picture, 50 years back, of my dad out in the yard at the end of the day. I could almost see him again. I could hear the sound of the mower. It was a comfortable feeling.”
  • “I was a social worker, and I had to visit people’s homes. Every time I went into someone’s house where the dishes had been left to sit for days in water—you know that scummy thing that happens, and that stink of rotten food—well, it was hard because that would take me back to when I was a child, when life wasn’t so good.”
  • “For me, it’s the aroma of fresh baked muffins. When I was a little girl, I used to help my Grandma bake. When my granddaughter bakes muffins now, I can still feel Grandma’s hands on mine, guiding me while I spoon the dough into muffin cups. I have a few pictures of her, but what really brings her back to me is the smell of those muffins baking.”

Of the five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch—smell is the most deeply ingrained. Through smell, one can recall experiences, often from childhood, that are otherwise obscured.  And it isn’t just recollection: These experiences are accompanied by emotion.

Why Does Scent Trigger Strong Memories and Emotions?

When one smells something, cells located in the nose process the odor and send signals to an “olfactory bulb.” The olfactory bulb is part of the “limbic system” in the brain. The limbic system is the innermost, preconscious portion of the brain. Among a number of other things, the limbic system is the emotion center and the memory regulator.

Memory and emotion are directly connected to smell. This is why smell can call up powerful responses and seemingly transport a person back in time.

How Can Scent be Used to Bring Back Memories?

An experiment can be done to see what scents trigger memories and to relive those memories. The experiment is simple: Sniff and see if the memory comes. The difficulty lies in what to sniff since everybody has different memories associated with different odors.

Here is a list of items that were selected for tests of what scientists call “autobiographical memories” or that were mentioned frequently in articles as most-often triggering strong memories:

  • Cut or crushed grass or hay or leaves or pine needles (Cut grass was the No. 1 memory inducer in one study.)
  • Baked goods: cookies, bread, muffins or banana bread (This was the No. 2 inducer.)
  • Chocolate, vanilla, almond or peppermint
  • The ocean
  • Whiskey, wine or beer
  • Tobacco or coffee
  • Chlorine (the swimming-pool smell)
  • Soft soap or soap
  • Tar
  • Alcohol or other antiseptic (if one really wants to remember those cuts and scrapes)
  • Rose, violet, lavender or lily of the valley
  • Anise, clove, cardamom, cinnamon or pepper
  • Old books or newspaper ink (if Dad or Mom read)
  • Leather (as in leather car seats)
  • Hot dogs or ketchup or mustard or pickle relish (4th of July and picnic smells)
  • French fries
  • Banana
  • Perfume

The Memory Will Come Back 

So, if memory is failing, try sniffing it out. Get a whiff of it. Breathe it in. Inhale it. Chances are, the memory you thought was lost forever will suddenly be right there, just as though it had never gone.

For more information:

  • Exploring the Potentials of Human Olfaction, an Interview with Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., F.A.C.P., by Russ Mason, M.S., published in “Alternative Complementary Therapies” in June 2005
  • The Major Senses: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, and Touch — The Dana Guide, by Gordon M. Shepherd, published in The Dana Guide to Brain Health in November 2007
  • Smell Your Way Back to Childhood: Autobiographical Odor Memory, by Johan Willander and Maria Larsson, published in the Psychonomic  Bulletin and Review in 2006

This article was published originally in Suite101.com.

 

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