The smell of memory. May 21, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: food and memory, memory, memory triggers, scent and memory, The Omnivorous Mind
Silence Dogood here. I just read a review of a new book, The Omnivorous Mind (John S. Allen, Harvard, 2012), in today’s Wall Street Journal (check it out at www.wsj.com). Mr. Allen, a neuroanthropologist, sets out to show why humans’ omnivorous tendencies helped make us what we are.
Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Like opposable thumbs and being able to walk upright, being omnivorous helped us evolve, adapt, and thrive as we spread out over the earth. This is not exactly news.
What is news is a finding that confirms what I’ve long believed, embedded in the body of the review: “there appears to be no connection between taste centers and the neural networks of memory.” It isn’t taste, but smell, that connects food to memory, that makes food trigger memories.
That hot buttered biscuit at Grandma’s house, the yummy barbecued ribs at the annual family cookout, the rich aroma of coffee in your parents’ breakfast cups, the smell of fresh-baked bread or cookies or baked potatoes or char-broiled steaks or fried chicken: One whiff, and your mind time-travels to the golden age when you enjoyed the scent for the very first time, and every time thereafter.
This is also why people who lose their sense of smell also lose their enjoyment of eating: Food no longer “tastes” like anything. It becomes meaningless, rather than a gateway to the past and to past and present pleasure.
Scent-induced memories certainly aren’t limited to food; they are the most powerful memory-triggers in every aspect of our lives. Seeing a photo of Grandma certainly brings feelings and thoughts to the forefront; but smelling her perfume, body lotion, or soap catapults us back into her home, vividly bringing her—and our child-selves—back to life.
Smelling nasturtiums instantly transports our friend Ben, age two, to his grandma’s porch, where she had windowboxes of the distinctly fragrant plants set out. For me, the scent of peonies, freesias, and old-time iris are supremely evocative; OFB and I both have very warm memories of the scent of marigold and chrysanthemum foliage and flowers.
Which scents hold most meaning for you?
‘Til next time,