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Smell your memory

Inheriting the smell of mouse droppings

My mother bought the house where she now lives, a concrete 1960s ex-council house that is nothing like the red-brick Victorian architecture she adores, because it has a walk in pantry.

Like the one in her childhood home.

On first viewing of the house, she stepped into the pantry, closed her eyes, inhaled deeply and exclaimed:

“Smell it!”

So I did.

The smell is distinctive. It is the universal scent of pantry. A soft and musty mix of old spices, once-fresh but long-eaten-bread and the sweetness of currants. And yes, just the faintest hint of mouse droppings (but we don’t talk about that).

I can’t now say whether I was transported back to my grandmother’s house at that moment. But the smell is now indelibly linked to both my mother and my grandmother. When I open my mother’s pantry and smell the mouse droppings, I see my grandmother’s house.

(Of course, neither my mother nor grandmother would ever have countenanced mice in their pantry. The laundry, maybe.)

Whether because the scent was already in my memory, or because my mother told me about her own smell memory is now irrelevant. The connection is there. That smell is now embedded in my own memory in both places.

So maybe we can inherit smells?

Catching smells

Smell is undoubtedly one of the most overlooked and most evocative of your senses. It creeps up on you when you think you’re paying attention to something else.

You can let the memory pass as quickly as it came.

Or, you can choose to stop—to inhale—to allow yourself a moment to savour the smell and pull at the tendrils of the memory to see where it takes you.

For me, the scent of mock orange on a hot suburban street transports me in an instant from the grime and dust of city life to a balmy garden somewhere from childhood. The smell is sweet, heady, intoxicating. But the tail end of that half memory disappears behind me even as I turn to catch it, leaving only an unexpected and gentle joy.

I can’t locate that memory in a single time or space.

Perhaps it is not one moment. Not one place.

Perhaps it’s several, tangled into one mess of memory.

A much clearer smell memory for me is that of a fresh laundry . That always takes me back to my late teens and early twenties, cycling to college along domestic South London streets and past the commercial Sunlight Laundry which flooded the street with the warm smell of soap.

I welcomed this moment every day. I’d open my nose wide, inhale deeply, stand up on my pedals and float on down the hill, high on a wave of freshly laundered sheets.

Why your nose remembers

Only in the last year, neurologists have identified the mechanism by which smells can “trigger the brain to recreate vivivd sensory experiences from memory” confirming what has been known anecdotally as the “Proust effect” for many years.

The famously verbose Marcel Proust, whose memories were triggered by the smell of madeleines dipped in tea, spanned several hundred pages wandering through his childhood memories in the novel “À la recherche du temps perdu”  (In Search of Lost Time). All before he even got out of bed.

It’s probably not surprising that loss of the sense of smell is recognised as an early symptom of dementia—a symptom that can appear up to a decade before more obvious memory loss begins.

Memory and smell have a close evolutionary history. This same region of your brain important for the sense of smell has a direct pathway to the hippocampus, critical for memory, which shrinks in Alzheimer’s patients.

As the author of a recent study on smell and memory explains, “we’ve discovered how you are able to remember the smell of your grandma’s apple pie when walking into her kitchen”.

Or possibly the smell of mouse droppings in a panty.

Unlock and smell your memory. Explore with your nose.

1. Pay attention to your nose

You cannot capture and refer to smells in the way you easily capture visual moments with a camera. But you can learn to notice when a smell catches you and pay attention to where that trigger takes you.

When a scent catches you, don’t rush on. Take a moment to take it in. What does it remind you of? Where does it take you?

2. Give yourself some quiet thinking time

Consider key places and times from your life. Try to conjure up the smells associated with those places and moments. Trying to evoke the smell of a particular place and time can trigger related memories.

3. Take a smell walk

You can do this around where you live now, around an old neighbourhood, in nature, or somewhere completely unfamiliar. What scents catch you? What pulls you to another time and place? Do this at different times of year to capture different scents and different memories.

4. Explore the smell in your own home

Rummage through your kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Open every jar, box and bottle, every potion and lotion and inhale. (Don’t do this with anything toxic, obviously.) What moments come to mind?

Let me know what you uncover

What’s your most evocative smell memory? Let me know in the comments, or drop me a line by email.

If you’d like to unearth your own memories, musical and otherwise, sign up for The Memory Mine to explore your memory in detail.

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