Has this ever happened to you? Somewhere, sometime, your nose picks up a random smell — one that you already have an olfactory memory of — and a scene from the past flashes in your mind. It may not be very vivid, but you are able to recollect the moment. It’s happened to me quite a few times. The memory is mostly from so long ago in the past, you’d think there is no chance your brain can fetch it for you. That’s what hits me the most. Not the memory itself, but the brain’s ability to connect the smell I randomly chanced upon today with what happened, in some cases, almost two decades ago. It is not just a faint recollection, but a very accurate retrieval of the setting from my mental archives. Imagine a computer running a program to make such an identification. There is no way, at least in the present age, that the machine can return a match instantly. The brain can and it does!
So, I got on Google. And found this article about why smells make such effective memory triggers. Here is an extract:
Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.
I’m guessing this has something to do with our evolution as a species. During our hunter-gatherer days, we’d have relied greatly on our olfactory senses, much more than on our eyes. The nose probably mattered more than the eye in terms of detecting threats as well as remembering favourable scents. A strong sense of smell must have served them well in conditions where visual cues were hard to come by. On a primal level, this notion makes us one with our long extinct forebears. But how did this come about? I mean, surely there has to be a reason olfactory sensations are able to trigger memories better than any of our other senses. This video gives a simple enough explanation. I for one, had no idea the sense of smell is the strongest among all our senses.
Undoubtedly, smells bond us to the world in a unique and inescapable way. There are loathsome smells and there are heavenly fragrances. Some are all pervasive in how they captivate your imagination, and some others make you squirm and protest. No matter their nature, all smells are a function of their respective matter and this world itself.
Imagine the sensory experience of a blind person. Their living world, which is nothing like anyone with all the senses intact can estimate, is built on sound and smell. The aromas that we don’t think about twice surely serve as strong cues of what’s happening around them. It’s sad that to really appreciate one sense, one is to be deprived of another.
So, the next time you get a whiff of your favourite fragrance, or even your favourite fruit, close your eyes, take a deep breathe and feel the scent move from your nostrils to your lungs. And then make some space in your heart for it to live on forever. Or don’t. Because, your brain.