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.
Smell Memories Are the Deepest
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
Senses besides smell evoke memories from our early teens and 20s, but smells call to mind memories from age 5 and earlier, and the memories were more emotional and vivid.
Memories recalled from smells can render us speechless because we these memories are not verbal. This may explain why there aren’t many words to describe smells outside of the object that exhibits the scent — we say something smells minty, woodsy, or like a wet dog.
Proust Tells Us What it’s Like to Experience a Scent Memory…
Who better than Proust to tell us what it feels like to be in the smell-induced time machine. Of the time when something was triggered when 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:
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 lotion brings up a memory of watching my mother smooth lotion on her hands, and noticing just how beautiful her hands were.