We notice so much without noticing that we’re noticing.
While we’re reading the menu or walking through a train station, smells are wafting right into our cells and embedding, only awaiting a whispered call to burst out of hiding in technicolor gusto.
I was reminded of this connection between memory and smell (and taste, because flavours are smells) by Peter Hitchens’ evocative essay in The Lamp last week (bolding mine):
“I think Proust’s idea that we find memories not by looking for them but unbidden through the non-verbal senses is right. … Music can evoke recollections, but only in a bludgeoning, sentimental sort of way. Smell and taste go straight past years of forgetting to awake unwanted, unexpected things. Lavender in a drawer, a now-unfashionable perfume my mother must once have worn, the thrilling scent of burning coal on chilly afternoons, wet raincoats and the salty, slimy odor of the seashore at low tide, can set off an explosion of memory, not always welcome. ….
“Memory, like dreams and sleep, remains a puzzle so huge that we barely think about it. … It is not obvious why I remember sitting in a high-ceilinged room aged about seven, trying to make a plastic model of a Navy destroyer, amid much glue. Or why I remember swinging on a certain gate on a summer evening, at about the same age. There is no principle or pattern in all this. A few recollections are of exciting or frightening things, but many more are quite dull and even unexceptional.”
Marcel Proust, in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, wrote about involuntary memory, describing how a bite of a madeleine opened up a world of vividly recalled childhood memories (bolding mine):
“[My mother] sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? …
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a longdistant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. “
Smell and memory are intimately connected because our sense of smell (and taste, because flavour is smell) — unlike our senses of hearing, sight, and touch — travels directly from the olfactory bulb in the nose to the “emotional and memory centers of the brain. All other senses first travel to a brain region called the thalamus, which acts like a ‘switchboard,’ relaying information about the things we see, hear or feel to the rest of the brain. … But scents bypass the thalamus and reach the amygdala and the hippocampus in a ‘synapse or two,’ … resulting in an intimate connection between emotions, memories and scents,” writes Yasemin Saplakoglu, mostly quoting Rutgers University psych professor John McGann, in “Why Do Smells Trigger Strong Memories?” (8 Dec, 2019, LiveScience). (Bolding mine)
She continues, now quoting and paraphrasing Brown University psychiatry & human behavior professor Rachel Herz, who is also the author of The Scent of Desire: “The emotion of scent … can bring back memories that might otherwise never be recalled. …. Typically, when a person smells something that’s connected to a meaningful event in their past, they will first have an emotional response to the sensation and then a memory might follow. But sometimes, the memory won’t ever resurface; the person might feel the emotion of something that happened in the past but won’t remember what they experienced,” which is unlike our other sensory experiences.
Here’s a little brain anatomy sidebar, though everything is much more complicated and some of it more controversial than I’m presenting here:
The olfactory cortical area is the part of the cerebral cortex, in the forebrain, that’s concerned with smell. Its largest and most distinctive area is the piriform cortex, which plays a critical role in odor discrimination and perception as well as odor memory. The main olfactory bulb connects to the amygdala via the piriform cortex of the primary olfactory cortex. The amygdala passes olfactory information on to the hippocampus. The olfactory cortical area is a component of the limbic system, which processes emotions, forms memories, and helps us learn. The limbic system includes the amygdala (helps form emotional responses + memories) and the hippocampus (indexes and stores memories) as well as the hypothalamus (regulates emotional responses). People used to use (maybe some still do?) the term rhinencephalon (or smell brain) to talk about the olfactory bulb, olfactory tract, and the rest of the olfactory cortical area including parts of the amygdala and the piriform cortex. Is the brain not kind of awesome and strangely designed and mapped?
“What the Nose Knows” (Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette, 27 Feb. 2020) references Dawn Goldworm, student of perfumery and co-founder of an olfactive branding company (of course that’s a thing), who says that “‘smell and emotion are stored as one memory” and that “smell is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb [from about 8-13 weeks!], and it’s the one that is the most developed in a child through the age of around 10 when sight takes over.” [? I’ve read that sight develops fully, to 20/20 vision, by age 2-3.]
Goldworm suggests strengthening our sense of smell (which diminishes with age) “by giving it a daily workout ….’When you are walking down the street, consciously indicate what you are smelling.'” So, another experiment or practice, depending on how you want to approach it: Take time to notice and identify what you smell.
You could also take a wine class. Or visit gardens blindfolded and try to identity flowers and herbs by scent.
A few additional notes:
I’ve written before about memory, for my February 2020 “Write 28 Days” blog posts, about place memory specifically in The Persistence of Memory and about memory, landscape, painting, and photography in Arcadia Has Always Been a Pretty Lie.
More on recent research about place memory in a Jan. 2022 article at The Conversation; it mentions that “location-selective cells are not only present in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex [another part of the limbic system], but also in a brain area linked primarily to olfactory function, namely the piriform cortex, the place thought to be primarily responsible for odour recognition.” This really fascinates me; perhaps my place-memory is much better developed than the rest of my memory because my sense of smell is strong — and not subject to my conscious mind.