Smell and Memory

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Yesterday I was brought back to a memory of being ten years old and I had just moved from a concrete urban environment that smelled like bus exhaust to a verdant suburb that smelled like fresh, cut grass. On Saturday mornings, all the men were out mowing their new suburban lawns. Now I closed my eyes and I was ten years old again and playing with my friends in the yard.

It is the olfactory sense which connects so quickly to memory. It is the sense of smell that transports us back to a time and place more than the senses of sight or sound ever do. We’ve all had the experience. How the piney smell of a wooden box instantly recalls a bunk at summer camp. How the smell of wet wool or jarred white paste evokes elementary school classrooms.

Artists and writers have long known that smells can spontaneously evoke powerful memories. But scientists also reveal the basis of this connection by explaining that the initial association of a smell with an experience somehow leaves a unique and lasting impression in the brain.

Scientists tested this idea in a “smell laboratory” where subjects viewed images while presented simultaneously with either a pleasant or an unpleasant odor generated in a machine called an Olfactometer. Next, the subjects were put in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to measure their brain activity as they reviewed the images they’d seen and attempted to remember which odor was associated with each. The participants viewed the objects again and were asked to recall the odors. The smells and images were repeated over time, and eventually revealed connections in the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in memory, and in the Amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotion. When scientists did the experiment using sounds rather than smells, they found that these connections were not nearly as significant.

But to my mind, it is the olfactory connection to people that is often the most profound and pleasurable. My mother smelled like Chanel #5, although the tips of her fingers sometimes smelled like onions. My father smelled like cigarettes and newsprint. My newborn daughter’s sweaty head when she woke from a nap smelled like sweet, ripe cantaloupe. My first boyfriend smelled like menthol and Clearacil.

A single, lingering deep breath … and there it is, another way of keeping the past alive and those you love with you always.

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