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The Nose Knows

The slightest scent can bring back the strongest memories

Lately I’ve been thinking about the power of smell.

Smell is a powerful memory trigger. Your olfactory nerve is very close to the part of your brain that’s connected to both emotion and memory.

Even your ability to smell is linked to memory – and when you learn something new while smelling an odor, it actually increases both the vividness and the intensity of the learned information whenever you smell that odor later.

So it's no wonder that so many (new) experiences from childhood are linked in your memory to certain smells.

The smell of cornbread baking reminds me of Sunday dinners at my grandma’s house.

The smells of sawdust, gas and oil are those of my earliest childhood memories – they smell like I’m safe and secure and they make me feel like I’m still a little girl. They smell just like my daddy.  

You know that sudden rush of sweetness that overwhelms you when you first open the door of a bakery? That, or the permeating scent of a cake baking in the oven, always remind me of my mom.

When I was little, she used to run a home-based cake-decoration business. Sometimes every available surface in our entire dining room and kitchen would be covered with cakes of all shapes and sizes.

Whenever I stayed home sick from school, my Grandma Ila (she died when I was 14) always gave me 7-Up and graham crackers; a single sniff of either of those things always takes me right back to the big chair in her living room and a game of “Button, button, who’s got the button?”  

Woodsmoke smells like my cousin’s house – my home away from home. Carefree summer days smell like fresh-cut grass, chlorine and honeysuckle vines. Fallen crunchy leaves smell like my wedding day. Libraries smell like adventure. Sliced cucumbers smell like picnics. Funnel cakes and candy apples smell like fall and the Apple Festival in my hometown. Hot tubs smell like vacation. Play-Doh smells like Bible School at church.

The first time I ever met my husband, he was wearing a Bath and Body Works spray for men called Alpine Summit. Every time I smell that scent, it takes me back to our first date.

In the top dresser drawer in my son’s room is a stash of baby oil, lavender bubble bath and Burt’s Bees baby powder. If I pull that drawer open and close my eyes, I am instantly transported to the days I brought each of my babies home from the hospital. That top drawer, to me, smells exactly like sheer joy and overwhelming love.

I wonder what smells my children will remember when they are grown:

Lavender baby lotion after a bath? Chili beans on the stove? Popcorn? Murphy’s Oil Soap? Coffee and bacon? Fresh strawberries?  

Sadie loves to smell Christmas: cookies baking, apple cider and cinnamon.

Josie, just like her Papaw, likes the smell of gasoline and hot asphalt.

Adelaide’s favorite smells are pinto beans and chicken and dumplings – they smell like Great Grandma’s house.

I’m not sure yet what Jedidiah’s favorite childhood smells might be, but I’m guessing diesel smoke from a tractor and maybe the electric smell of the battery charger for his Big Wheel jeep. They smell like two things a boy loves: freedom and excitement!

Which smells are the most powerful memory triggers for you?

Kate Pitrone September 16, 2012 at 12:00 PM
Lovely, Devone, and quite true.
Callie E. September 16, 2012 at 08:01 PM
I love that new baby smell too, also the smell of a certain air freshener (coconut) always reminds me of my very first car because I had one of those little tree things hanging from my mirror in there. Smells really do take you back.
Sharon September 20, 2012 at 04:25 AM
The smell of grape Kool-Aid and peanut butter & crackers reminds me of Vacation Bible School when I was young. It's really cool how scents can send you back to places and former times! This is a great article!

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