Guerlain’s Shalimar wafts through the air. You haven’t smelled it in years. You used to wear it, up until the time your first love dumped you. You remember that unexpected moment, and all the pain that came with it. That was years ago, you’re happily married now and you know you’ve long moved on. But, really, what’s with the pain?
The nexus of scents and memory has always been an interesting field of memory science. And why not? Out of all the senses that collect information about experiences, the sense of smell seems to attach to the most emotional ones. The smells become much like the feels – sad, happy, and the myriad of emotions in between.
One may argue that our sense of smell is actually the strongest among all our senses. It is also the oldest one; before sight, hearing or touch, we can already smell the chemicals present in the air and water around us. These chemicals trigger reactions in our brain via more than a thousand continuously regenerating smell receptors in the human body. This amazingly complex system of receptors of the sense of smell is far more overpowering than the sense of sight (which has about four light sensors) and touch (at least four receptors).
In sum, the sense of smell is probably the most powerful among the senses. The power of the sense of smell to attach to experiences, scientifically called “memories”, and pull them together whenever triggered, is something which science has tried to investigate for decades now. There are a lot of scientific clues that explain why but none as definitive and conclusive as of today. What is clear though is that the sense of smell, and the nose, which is the sense organ responsible for it, is a complex little thing almost as complex as the feelings it bring.
The memory evoked by the sense of smell is called an “episodic memory”. It is what helps us remember the beauty of that particular spring day with just a whiff of the cologne that a significant other wore that day. It is what brings back the painful memory of having lost a loved one when we sniff again the parfum of a close relative who hugged us.
The way a memory is associated strongly with what we smelled is a marvel that deserves a little more detail. The brain’s primary processor of scents – the olfactory bulb – is right next to the hippocampus. And the hippocampus is the central hub for all experiential information. See the convenience there?
Aside from that, the sense of smell also has a very peculiar trait present in none of the other sense organs. While all other sense organs send information through the thalamic relay station (via the orgam thalamus), information from the nose reaches the olfactory bulb directly. This is how direct a powerful scent attack can be.
Neuroscience has explained to us how perfume can be a very powerful memory trigger. Depending on the memory, one can’t help but be overcome with tears when smelling a particular fragrance. The magic also works the other way around. A perfume can leave more than just a nice smell; it can paint a very powerful mental image capable of being felt and experienced like the raw material itself.
The episodic memories – accompanied by your favourite cologne for autumn, from that expensive perfume you wore on your wedding day, even the spritz of that fragrance you never got to know the name of – will all stick to you. They will travel directly to your brain and lodge right next to where the rest of your memories are. All those smells will entangle with those neighbouring memories, and will make them all eternal. With just a whiff, you are transported back to that very melancholic autumn day when you decided you wanted to move to another city, on your wedding day when you felt loved immensely, and on that very normal day when you met a new acquaintance who would otherwise have been forgotten.
The scents will help you relive and retell. The scents will help you remember.