Something I’ve always wondered about is scent memory. Ever notice how catching a whiff of a scent often brings up a certain memory? Apparently, smell is the most powerful memory jog. Sure, other senses are related to and do jog the memory, but I find that they pale in comparison to how vivid a memory arises from a scent. It could be the smell of the cigars your grandpa used to smoke that remind you of a certain sunny day you spent at grandpa’s place. Why do you think people wear perfumes and colognes? It’s so that they smell nice – and that others can recognize them by scent! I’m quite sure this goes back to our cave-dwelling days, and is also linked to pheromones.  But I couldn’t be sure, so I did some research.

I read this article, Smell and Memory, and this is an excerpt from it:

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

It all makes sense. It never ceases to amaze me just how powerful that link between scent and memory is. Recently, I noted an interesting experience. Usually we associate a scent with a memory – ie. you smell something, and it raises a memory in your mind. I’m sure it’s happened to me before, but recently I’ve become aware of a new experience. I experienced a memory, and as a result – imagined the associated smell. When I say that I imagined the associated smell – I mean that I actually smelled it.  So, is this some kind of olfactory hallucination? I was trying to wrap my mind around how this particular trigger works in reverse – and was highly interested that it did happen! Maybe this is a common occurrence for some people. I suppose it’s unique and interesting for me because I’ve only just become aware that it happens.

I found this lovely quote that poetically encapsulates scent memory:

Nothing is more memorable than a smell.  One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town.  Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years.  Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once.  A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.  ~Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

So now I’m wondering. What are your experiences with scent memory? And have you ever experienced it in reverse, with a memory coming first to the surface, and then the associated scent filling your nose?

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