I can barely remember anything from when I was a little girl. The only time I can retrieve memories is by verbal cues from others that explain a situation and the details and then suddenly everything comes back. This occurs with visual cues as well, for instance, a movie from way back when. I had never had retrieved a memory through a smelling cue so when I did and all the memories flowed through the memory flood gates, I was caught a bit off guard. After reading chapter seven in our textbook, I am now able to understand how a smell triggered a submerged memory through a cue and a matching condition of encoding and retrieval (Goldstein, 2011).
As I walked down the perfume aisle of the department store I scanned the displays to see if anything was of interest to me. A woman a couple feet away from me sprayed a perfume to sample smell it and after deciding it wasn’t for her, I’m assuming, began to walk past me. As she passed, I caught a whiff of the perfume she had sprayed and recognized it instantly. Before I even had the chance to exhale, memories flowed through my mind and I remembered my great-grandmother, her little wood run down house, her skin, her face, the room I was in when I said my goodbyes to her while she laid on the bland hospital bed, in her dusty room covered in Virgin Mary shrines and photos of Jesus Christ, the outhouse I had to use because she lived on a ranch, how smelly that was, the goats and chickens outside, the unforgiving smell there too, her white hair with a patch of blondish looking hair near her forehead, the casket with a glass cover that she was laid in after she passed, the sweat droplets on her body while she was in it, and even remembered thinking to myself, “How is she sweating when she is dead?” I even stared at her chest until my eyes hurt to see if I could see her chest move, making sure she wasn’t breathing. All those memories that I hadn’t thought of in over ten years came back and as vivid if it had all occurred the day before. My great-grandmother seemed to bathe herself in that perfume, which was often overbearing to me, a then maybe 6 year old girl. It’s no wonder that I associated that smell with her, the house, and other memories. Even though the smell in the department store was modest in comparison to what I had been used to, it was enough to bring back many memories. But why? How?
According to our book, “retrieval can be increased by matching the condition at retrieval to the conditions that existed at the time of encoding.” (Goldstein, 2011) Of course the department store wasn’t a wooden run-down house, and the lady looked nothing like my great grandmother who had beautiful green eyes, however the powerful smell of the perfume that was encoded into my senses and the sudden rapid firing neurons in response to that smell was enough to retrieve any remote memories I had. The clarity and details of how much I recalled was largely due to the depth of processing. My great-grandmother on her deathbed and her death were important and an emotional time for me being that she was the first person that I had ever had to let go of because of death. I replayed the moments over and over in my mind for a couple weeks after she had passed trying to make sense of everything so in a way, my deep processing was aided by the elaborative rehearsal I had unknowingly done in my mind. Understanding this made me realize how my mind remembered so much after so long.
This incident happened over maybe two years ago and at the time I remember thinking to myself, “How crazy is it that I remembered all this just by smelling a scent that I hadn’t smelled in years!?” Chapter seven answered my questions and clarified much of the “how in the heck?” questions I had. It’s appalling how small our brain is in comparison to everything else in the world, how it can go through so much, and still it remembers things when we think we have “forgotten”.
Goldstein, E B. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.