Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel. – Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
We’ve long known that smell can trigger memories from yesteryear and with it strong emotion, because, well because we’ve experienced it. The brain research is relatively young. And of course it is confirming what we already know. The brain responds stronger, in some situations, to odor memory than it does sight memory.
Sometimes when I walk in the back door at work I smell Vacation Bible School (VBS). The smell is a combination of coffee, cream, sugar and sweet treats. But as I walk from the back door, through the student affairs office and out into the hallway where I head for my office suite, I can go through years of VBS memories in a flash.
The memories include dozens of people I grew up with at church and their parents, especially the moms who taught VBS, and handed cups of Kool-aid and two cookies wrapped in a napkin out the windows of the fellowship hall as all we little ones stood in line. The smell of coffee and donuts, the adult treats, wafted out the windows.
The smell of sweet carnations takes me back to January of 1970 when my paternal grandfather died on a cold grey Saturday afternoon. It was my first experience with death of a loved one. We went to the funeral home on Monday evening and I was overwhelmed by the sickeningly sweet smell of too many carnations.
I was 11. I never smell carnations today but that I do not conjure up memories of those sad winter days. I still can see in my mind’s eye the grief stricken thin little girl at the funeral, donning a blue dress her grandmother had made her, her stick legs in white tights, wearing a white sweater, and black patent leather shoes with straps that tied atop her feet.
Brain research is fascinating to me. All brain research is relatively young. There is no telling what we will learn over the next few decades about the way our brains work. I am grateful there are those “brainiacs” who makes their life’s work to study such things.
What odors elicit strong memories and emotion from you?