Smells like the past


Smell is a strange sense which has a power we often underestimate.  Today, I went into a room at the library, and after inhaling one lungful, I was instantly transported back in time over 10 years to the home of a childhood friend.  I can’t work out exactly that it was, but some combination of paper stock and cleaning products must have emulated the mix of smells found in his hallway.  That room has not affected me like that before, and may well not do so again.  Naturally, I texted him to tell him of this event, and may have unsettled him for the rest of the day – certainly he said it was the most random text he’d ever received!

Other smells do that to me, but in ways that I can pin down far more easily.  The smell of Pears soap takes me back to summers at my grandparents’ house in Norfolk, but then Pears still is Nanna’s brand of choice.  A particular tree transports me to my first year at university, but only because the very odd-smelling tree had a relative very close to my halls of residence.  Various food smells as well can spark reminiscences as the cooking aroma wafts past.  It is always the smell of something cooking, not something on the plate – perhaps because most food-related memories worth keeping happen in homes, not in restaurants.  Certain places punch you in the gut as soon as you breathe in as well – hospitals most obviously.

Music is usually what sparks my synapses most readily, but today was a reminder that our noses have a mysterious power which easily beats our eyes, ears and hands.  Smells can make us nauseous or induce ecstasy, or they can take us back in a fraction of a second, in a most unexpected way.

  1. this is Olfactory memory. It is a very powerful cue for retrieving events stored in long term memory. I can’t remember just why though.

    • Trish
    • November 23rd, 2010

    Funnily enough a similar thing happened to me yesterday. I was cleaning the bathroom with a brand of cleaning product I had never used before (a limescale remover) and I remembered it as the exact same smell as a bathroom from a hotel I once stayed at.

    Imperial leather soap reminds me of my mum’s bathroom, coal tar soap of my sister-in-law’s parents’ bathroom and lemon soap of the time at primary school when I won a lemon soap ( in the shape of a lemon, in a wooden box) in a raffle and got a bit addicted to sniffing it!

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