Smelling The Past

 You walk back to your drom while it is raining and the scent of the earth rises up into your nostrils and reminds you of your childhood where you’d run out into the backyard with your dad and welcome the first rains of the monsoon. Or what about that girl that passed by you today in class who smelled like daisies and just like your ex? You were suddenly reminded of the ecstatic time when your first fell in love and the tragic heartbreak that ensued later. We have all been through that one experience where certain smells and aromas trigger strong flashbacks of our past forcing us to reflect or leave us nostalgic.

Consider all of our important senses – Touch, taste, sight, balance, etc. out of the 20 senses that we know smell has probably been the most complex of all. Till today there is no working theory that explains smell – we don’t know if it’s molecule binding, we don’t know if it’s vibrations,  we don’t know if it is the dendrites. What we do know is that the sense of smell was one of the first senses to develop and it goes directly to the brain; There is no filter for smell. This is the reason why smell is linked so strongly to memory and emotions. This experience is called as “Proustian Experience

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The olfactory bulb that is credited with the sense of odour ( situated in the skull in frontal part of the brain) is a part of the limbic system of our brain which is linked with the emotional aspects . The smell travels through the nasal cavity where it is picked up by the “10 million or so” receptor cells in our mucus membrane that signals the olfactory bulb in our skulls. Now these nerve cells are then sent into both the amygdala and hippocampus parts of the brain and they both are concerned with the emotional and memory part of the brain. This explains why the smells enforces strong nostalgic moments.

As I was discussing this fact with a friend of mine he jumps up excited that he has made a cure to getting better grades in exams; simply associate a smell with a particular text that was read. Seemed legit to me as well; however later upon research I found that this wasn’t possible. The smell concerns more with the emotional parts of the memory more than it concerns with the informational parts; namely the amygdala. That is also one of the reasons why sometimes the mind reshapes these memories into something more emotional than it already was resulting in the current experience to be a bit distorted from the  actual experience that one went through. The feelings of remorse or happiness may come back in an enforced form.

I have this diary that a friend gave me before I left home for college where she stuck flowers from different season and put them on different pages. “Home is where the heart is”, she wrote in a calligraphic handwriting on the last page. The smell of the flowers, shockingly is still alive as if it sinked through every page of the diary. Every evening I sit down and smell the paper; and each time feeling (almost) back home.

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Sources:
=>http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/intelligenceandmemory/nostalgicsmells.shtml
=>http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2001/06/28/313347.htm

4 thoughts on “Smelling The Past

  1. EDWARD CHARLES WORRELL III

    It is interesting that you write this blog because it really does make so much sense because we have all experienced it. We all associate certain smells with good times or bad times including experiences. Smell in my opinion is a sense that is gravely overlooked and I say this because of how misunderstood or simply lack of understand it has. Scent can give us joy it can make us feel good about ourselves. The big looming question is why? Why does this happen? Why do we have the ability to smell because while it is so nice to have this ability what service does it provide to our survival?

  2. Michelle Simon

    I found this post to be particularly interesting. I remember learning years ago how scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. And yet, it still never ceases to amaze me. Walking to class on Tuesday I smelled my grandma’s perfume and for a second really thought she was here. The dryer sheets I use remind me of home. Beach-scented candles remind me of summer just like pumpkin bread and applesauce cooking and leaves “smell like fall.” Our associations with scents are seemingly permanent.

    According to this NY Times article, the first association with a scent is actually stronger than the second time you smell something. The NYT article says, “Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, described the power of smell to serve as an almost magical time machine, with potential for treating dementia, depression, the grim fog of age.” Pretty cool, huh?

  3. TAYLOR CARROLL

    I always wondered why out of all the senses, why smell seemed to be the one to bring out emotion more than the others. The smell of the perfume my grandmother used to wear reminds me of her and the way her room smelled, and takes me back to when I was little and used to live with her. The science behind that is interesting in that a sense that we use every day can effect our emotion and bring about a nostalgic feeling.

  4. JEFFREY THOMAS CARPENTER

    Smelling the past, and maybe a future mate too! USA today ran a piece on a scientist who had people sleep in a t-shirt, which were eventually collected, and members of the opposite sex smelled their “natural scent” on the shirt to see if they liked the smell. It sounded a little creepy to me at first, but the point of the study was to show that many people have a “compatible smell” that partners pick up on. Similar to how people have different taste buds, there are smells that some find enjoyable and others do not.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24200402/ns/health-health_care/t/nalgene-phase-out-hard-plastic-bottles/#.UFstxM2Qeqk

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