Among other things, our brains operate as the hard drives of our bodies – harnessing data, experiences, and moments in time that are available for searching, sharing, and remembering whenever the need arises. For many of us, accessing joyful memories is often ignited through our sense of sight, as photographs and videos often transport our present day back to another place and time. But researchers are discovering that smells trigger memories more effectively than other senses.
When you see, hear, touch, or taste something, that sensory information first heads to the thalamus, which acts as your brain’s relay station. The thalamus then sends that information to the relevant brain areas, including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, and the amygdala, which does the emotional processing.
But with smells, it’s different. Scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain’s smell center, known as the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which might explain why the smell of something can so immediately trigger a detailed memory or even intense emotion.
As I’ve aged, I can say with great certainty that smells trigger memories in me more than any photograph or video ever could. The memory of smells is compelling in its ability to act like a time machine in our minds, enabling us to revisit a point in history from long ago that is amazingly alive and waiting for our recollection. Let me give you a few examples.
My wife’s a high school teacher, and before the start of a new school year, I’m often helping carry supplies and decorations into her classroom. By then, the janitorial staff already waxed and shined the floors in the hallways and repainted classrooms, common spaces, and offices.
The combination of smells (which some might find unpleasant) is undeniable, familiar, and comforting, taking me back to my early days of elementary school, which were some of my most enjoyable and inspiring compliments of the extraordinary teachers whose classroom I was blessed to sit in. It’s a yearly visitation that I’m always looking forward to.
At the beginning of November, my wife enjoys the scent of cranberry candles throughout our home leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. As soon as the wick is ignited, the air fills with a warm, fruity smell, instilling a sense of calm and well-being and supporting the notion of home sweet home.
It also reminds me of all the times we spent at my paternal grandmother’s house during the Christmas season, lighting similarly smelling votives atop her fireplace mantle while we decorated the Christmas tree listening to holiday tunes on the record player while a ham cooked away in the oven.
Lately, a new smell has been triggering my memories. My wife and I live in a residential community in Colorado where park-like settings and tree-lined streets dominate the landscape all around us. In the early morning or evenings, we often go walking in this tranquil environment, not only for the benefit of exercise but to relish in the grounding and centering qualities only nature can provide.
Regardless of the time of day, whenever we walk by this one spot in our community, I’m overcome with a fragrance that reminds me of my beloved maternal grandmother’s house and the many wonderful times I spent there.
Maybe it’s a tree, a shrub, a flower, or some grass, but the smell is powerful and evident to my sense of smell. I’ve tried to point out the scent to my wife several times, but she smells nothing unique or distinguishable from the rest of the landscape. What’s also interesting is the smell is not constant and only lasts a short period before going away altogether.
Of course, I’d like to think that it’s the spirit of my grandmother saying “hello.” Perhaps she understands that smells trigger memories, and remembering a time and place that often provided my life with such joy and acceptance is her way of reminding me that she’s still a part of my life even though she’s no longer physically here.
Hellen Keller once wrote, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Smells trigger memories, and those memories are often what we need to navigate a less-than-ideal world in which belonging leads to competition, kindness is momentary, and families are disconnected. So let your sense of smell guide you to the occasions and individuals from your past who’ve given you something so meaningful to remember.