Have you ever wondered why we associate certain scents with strong memories? It’s science, my friends. Of all the sensory sensations, smell follows a different route into the brain.
All sensory information, with the exception of scents and smells, are immediately processed in the thalamus. The thalamus serves as a gate keeper for these sensations. It routes these sensations to the cerebral cortex for interpretation. Was that hot? Was that pain? Was that pleasurable?
With smells, however, the thalamus is bypassed. Scents are routed directly to the olfactory bulb where the smell is translated into a signal the brain can process. From there, the sensation is routed to the amygdala (which processes emotions) and then on to the hippocampus which controls learning and memory.
This is why we often have deeper memory associations with smells and scents than we do with other sensory memories.
So, today, think of some situations when you were transported by a smell, or simply tell me what memories you associate with certain smells.
My answers follow below.
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Sometimes when I am alone in my car I will smell either strong coffee or cigarette smoke. I do not know where the smells originate in the present, but they always transport me to a memory of my father. This happens to my daughter as well. It is not unusual for either of us to phone the other and relate the experience. We like to think it in his presence in those moments.
When I visited my Dad, I often got up in the night to go to the bathroom. I could see the red glow of his cigarette in the darkness as he sat on the barstool in the kitchen staring out the window. I would give him a hug and he would tell me he couldn’t sleep. He would tell me to go back to bed and get my rest. I could always tell his thoughts had transported him a million miles away.
The smell of fresh cut wood and sawdust always call up memories of my maternal grandfather’s wood shop. I can see wood shavings on the floor and his machines bolted to the workbench. It was such a small space to have created the mass of furniture that filled my grandparents’ house. Those pieces of furniture are spread among his grandchildren now. A table he made from ebony he brought back from the Phillipines sits in my bedroom.
Summer rain and the smell of honeysuckle transport me back to the Valley. I remember clearly how my paternal grandfather taught me to read the trees and the sky for signs of a coming rain. Such a simple yet evocative moment.
Even though he no longer uses it, the smell of Mennen Skin Bracer after shave will forever remind of my husband. Much like Old Spice will always make me think of my father.
you are fresh water
that falls from trees
when it has stopped raining. For me,
you are cinnamon that lingers
on the tongue and gives
For me, you are the scent of
violins and vision
for me, your loveliness never ends.
and finds its
way back to me.
― Kamand Kojouri