If you want to access some of the earliest memories of your childhood, catch a whiff of tar, chlorine, or that perfume your mother used to wear. There is a strong connection between smells, emotions, and early life experiences – even before the age of 5.

Evoking Your Earliest Memories

Scents are processed directly without language to the part of the brain that creates memory and ties memory to emotion. So when an odor triggers a memory, it’s often a strong, emotional memory of a specific time or place.

This is different from our other senses (see, hear, touch, taste), which are not processed directly to this emotional memory center. And while it may seem that taste operates like smell, it’s really the sense of smell at work here.

Scent Memories are Visual, Emotional, Often Beyond Words

Our senses can help to evoke memories from our early teens and 20s, but scents call to mind our earliest memories, from age 5 and earlier. And these memories tend to be more emotional and vivid.

Scent memories can render us speechless because we these early memories are preverbal and stored in our brain experientially. Often words used to describe smells are a riff on what we are smelling — we say a scent is minty, woodsy, or like a wet dog.

Proust Describes the Experience of a Scent Memory…

Who better than Proust to tell us what it feels like to be in the smell-induced time machine. He describes the moment that a memory was triggered as he dipped a madeleine cake into his cup of tea:

A shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped…

Emotion came first; he was filled with “all-powerful joy,” but he wasn’t sure why.  He cleared his mind and waited; finally, the memory came:

The taste was that of a little crumb of madeleine…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.

He was transported back to the exact time and place he’d had the madeleine, and could remember every detail from that time period:

all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village…sprang into being…from my cup of tea.

Well I’m not Proust, but the scent of Jergens hand cream brings to me a feeling of beauty as I remember being in the back seat of our car with my sister watching my mother smooth lotion on her delicate hands in the passenger seat.

What scents bring memories to you?

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