Olfactory Memories

I was taking a shower the other morning without my contacts in yet, reached for a bar of soap and wham!  it was like my ex was in the shower with me. WTH? 

I had inadvertently grabbed a bar of Irish Spring soap, which he used to use.   It hasn’t resided in our shower for a long time now, but evidently my son ran out of his Axe shower gel and found an old bar in the cupboard.

This incident made me realize, once again, what an olfactory person I am.  Like Marcel Proust with his famous Madeleine scene in “Remembrance of Things Past” *,  scents often trigger memories for me, usually of specific people in my life.

My high school boyfriend’s mother used Downy fabric softener and a sniff of the original scent brings back memories of meeting at the lions in front of the Historical Society.

My grandmother wore Jean Nate and while that’s not a scent I encounter often anymore, just a whiff puts me back in her loving presence.

The guy I crushed on all throughout college put “Shower to Shower” body powder on after every shower and whenever I smell it now, I have an overwhelming feeling of longing for what might have been. 

My first husband wore a cologne by Avon that used to send me into fits of lust.

My college boyfriend Pete always smelled faintly of the powder he used to treat his athlete’s feet.

My second husband (also the Irish Spring man) wore Lagerfeld cologne when we were dating.  It seemed so exotic and classy and while he stopped wearing it much after we were married,  when he did put it on, it always brought me back to our early days.

All of this got me wondering just WHY smells trigger memories.  According to Discovery Health:  “Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously. The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory.”  http://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/systems/nose-throat/smell3.htm

Whatever the reason, it’s a pretty powerful association.  I wonder if people who lose their sense of smell also lose some of their memories?

At least all of my olfactory associations seem to be pleasant ones!



* “She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull 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, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place… at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…” – An excerpt from “À la recherche du temps perdu” (”Remembrance of Things Past”, or later: “In Search of Lost Time” – Marcel Proust).

About karenft

I am 56, divorced mother of three, librarian by profession. I am an avid reader and chocoholic, like photography, writing, gardening, board games, cooking and walking. I enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities--bicycling, hiking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking--but never seem to have the time for participating these days. Soon, I hope.
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