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The smell of memory. May 21, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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,




1. Becca - May 22, 2012

I don’t know which scent holds the most memory but there is a fragrance my first grade teacher wore. I think of her every time I pass a woman in a store wearing it. 🙂

Perfume is definitely a big one, Becca! The scents of Joy and Antilope remind me of my own beloved Mama, while people occasionally stop me in stores to say that my Charlie reminds them of someone.

2. SaraC - May 23, 2012

I am definitely a person moved by scents, particularly those I associate with changes in the season. Spring smells like wild celery that grows on the hill behind the house. Summer is a perfume of the dry native grasses carried on a hot wind. Fall is bottled up as “Back to School” – a hint of morning dew on the dusty road. Winter is the smell of oak leaves rotting and the tiny blades of grass sprouting up from under them. Each one them makes me turn my head like a weathervane.

How lyrical, Sara! Thanks for sharing your lovely images with us!

3. William - May 24, 2012

We are all moved by smell or scents. Many of the smells that trigger my memories have multiple memories attached from different periods of time. There is one smell that is Kryptonite to me. If I catch the smell, I will pass out. This is one reason why my plasma selling career in college ended and why I struggle with giving blood in any form. Once I get that smell, there is a great struggle within me to keep the tunnel vision from going black. There is something about the latex or a version of plastic that will weaken me. No need cutting my hair.

Now my weakness is known to all! Thankfully, Moriarty is dead??

Ha! And yikes, too. What a thought! As for Moriarty, he may not be dead, but hopefully he isn’t following Poor Richard’s Almanac!

4. narf77 - June 3, 2012

I have a theory that people who have keener senses of smell are more likely to be overweight than their less olfactory excited friends. Smells equate with memories and they also equate with being able to find food in a past bygone era where that sense might have been the difference between eating and surviving (in the same breath). Gotta say that NO amount of sniffing is going to allow you to climb that tree to get the sweet sweet fruit if you don’t first have those delightful opposable thumbs 😉

That’s a fascinating theory, narf! I’ll have to figure out how to discreetly ask friends and family about the acuity of their sense of smell, and then see how it corresponds to their size…

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