“Scent is our most potent form of time travel.” Victoria Erickson
Isn’t weird how life events are so often indexed by smell? Our noses program us to remember the most offbeat memories by scent. Baby powder transports is back in time to squishy babies, fresh from the bath, deliciously cuddly and dusted with the stuff. The aroma of freshly baked cookies opens a door to just about any time milk and a tasty little ‘somethin-somethin’ made our day.
Of course, we can’t take all the credit for logging a brainful of aroma information. Like most complex things the human body flawlessly executes, your olfactory senses neatly link smells to situations. Often that process produces a conditioned response, like how just a whiff of a vaguely familiar odor of the dentist office makes us want to walk the other way. Researchers claim that whatever smells a mother favors, while the baby is in utero, infants prefer as they grow. That actually makes perfect sense, considering how I love the smell of garlic and lilac (not in that order). That’s the beauty of the ‘emotional brain’.
“Scent is the strongest tie to memory.” Maggie Stiefvaver
Scientists call the way we link scent to experience, an associated learning mechanism, which just means our emotions and sense of smell are hardwired to our brain. Our perceptions of odors not only create an emotional, conditioned response to them, but can even influence how we think and act. That makes perfect sense when you think of places like healthcare facilities, where the fragrance of lavender is used to calm and relax, while often masking other less appealing odors! So often I remember a scent even more than the actual event – or maybe that’s just a side effect of aging!
Smells ring bells. How about those almost imperceptible scents, momentary whiffs so fleeting yet so deep, that almost instantly it triggers something precious and gone. At times, I’ve breathed in a floating memory of my husband’s pillow that brings me right back to the man I lost too soon, or the unmistakable lily of the valley scent of my mother’s Muguet De Bois cologne.
To this day, pretty common aromas can spark pretty cool rememberings:
- That earthy smell after a rain storm calls up a huge, crazy ‘macaroni tree in the front yard of my childhood home which shed ‘popcorn’ flowers and long beans my barefoot brother and I gathered up.
- Hot asphalt and the time my mother told me not to run in new patent leather shoes, which of course, I did, resulting in a concussion and week in bed.
- The intoxicating smell of lilacs, that signaled the start of summer, and basil (or as my Italian family called it ‘basilico’) which we collected at the end.
- Salt air tinged with fish, Coppertone and pine trees will always, always send me right back to my happy place, Cape Cod.
- Cilantro. We won’t talk about that one.
- Antiseptic that permeates will always initiate visions of too many hospital rooms in too many hospitals.
- Sauce (that’s right – sauce not gravy) bubbling on the stove, replete with bobbing meatballs dials up more childhood and adult sharing memories than I can count.
- Lemon pledge is a sure sign that my mother is still in the ethernet, cleaning the most sanitized house on the block.
- A car full of smelly, sweaty socks and sneakers – along with the guffawing teenage boys who wore them, will always be the stuff of both sentimental memories that you miss in the well dressed and smelling men they became.
- Hyacinths. If I don’t have them blooming and sending their aroma through the house, I can’t picture Easter or spring at all for that matter.
“Things change, people fall apart, stories end, life departs…. but the aroma of memories inject you forever” Priya Agarwal
So thank you, olfactory system, for being such a cool filing cabinet for often obscure, decades old memories that I didn’t know I still held at the end of a scent. Good memories and bad memories both in tandem allow me to remember all the moments in time that made me who I am, like it or not. And to be grateful for the bitter and sweet, as well as the ability to recall them in a blink of a scent.
When my grandbabies are grown, having kidlets of their own, like the great grandboy toddling now, and they smell chocolate chip pancakes, or a whiff of Clinique’s Happy perfume, I hope they’ll think of me, as well.