Nosing Around in the Past – Thursday Thoughts

The sense of smell has a particularly close relationship with the recall of memories. Specific aromas produce instant vivid recollections in us quite unlike any other stimuli can.

Photograph of a man mowing the grass, accompanying the historytracings blog post “Nosing Around in the Past - Thursday Thoughts” from historytrace. Image copyright: www.freeimages.com / Andrea Kratzenberg.

For those of us who like nosing around in the past, researching our family history and gathering information about specific family moments or individuals, our own memories are key to recalling the recent past. Our recollections and those of other family members are often a helpful starting point to share family history information and ask others what they remember or know about past family generations. Memories are what make family lore.

For many people that experience of suddenly encountering a familiar aroma which is bound up with a particular memory can result in a flood of recollections which have been long archived in some neural recess. When this happens to me I am as much surprised by the sudden flash of memories, which bring with them strongly visual thoughts and feelings, colours and sounds, as I am surprised by the unexpected manifestation of that specific scent which acted as their trigger.

The ability aromas have to unlock memories is due to several neurological features.

The area of the brain which is responsible for processing aromas is called the olfactory bulb. This is sited in the human brain next to an area called the hippocampus, crucial to creating new memories of events. Tom Stafford writes: “Smell is unique among the senses in that it enters directly deep into the brain”. Unlike the other senses which send information to a relay station called the thalamus, information from aromas goes straight to the the olfactory bulb where it is processed. It is believed that this proximity to the hippocampus delivers the capability of aromas to quickly trigger memories. We have at least 1,000 different smell receptor types which enable incredibly complex smell differentiation. The neurological pathways for smell reception are so direct that this almost bypasses language and indeed it is notable how little language we have to describe the sheer variety of smells.

If I asked you whether there were aromas which trigger memories for you, for example from your childhood or other significant life events, there are probably several which you can quickly point to with their associated memories.

They are often general everyday aromas which are all around us, such as cut grass and seaside spray which recall in us people and places or moments. Next time you find yourself surprised by a scent, try focusing on what memories it evokes in your mind’s eye, perhaps images and feelings. Note them down, exploring around them to see what else that trigger can help you recall.

Just as you can picture memories in your mind’s eye, you can also to a certain extent smell memorable scents in your mind’s nose. Since I have almost lost my sense of smell this is a particularly appreciated cognitive ability.

But there are also those aromas which rarely assail us but have a real emotive memory hook. This is partly because many of these particular trigger smells are scents which are not manufactured these days and are hard to come by deliberately or unawares. There are some smells which I can’t specifically remember anymore and cannot begin to describe, but I know that they existed and once had the power to evoke a particular memory in me, like one perfume used by a great aunt.

There are of course some heritage scents, specific perfumes, carbolic soaps, foodstuffs and natural organic aromas which have altered little over the decades, unhampered by human modification. However even within a general category of scents such as apple there is so much variation. There is one apple scent which takes me straight back to junior school to the days when there were classroom apples. I have never been able to find that one variety of apple that evokes this memory, some hint at it, but that particular memory evoking scent is incredibly specific and elusive.

Items which once belonged to older family members that have been handed down to us are often imbued with certain smells, some of which are strongly familiar to us and reminiscent of the person to whom the item formerly belonged. Other heirlooms have quite unfamiliar scents which hark back to a time long past when life smelled different.

Without a doubt, like photographs but to a more spontaneous degree, smells can evoke immediate memories. So I was wondering whether we have the ability to deliberately trigger spontaneous unpremeditated memories by just thinking about those aromas rather than actually smelling them? Can imagined, recalled aromas bring to mind the same memory details as the response to an actual perceived scent or do the recollections differ?

Can you work this the other way around? If you recall specific memories, are there smells associated with those memories or any other imagined sensory stimuli which you can record alongside those memories, to be used later in life to help trigger memories when the faculty of memory becomes less assured?

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 19/06/2016

Link: Tom Stafford, “Why Can Smells Unlock Memories“, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120312-why-can-smells-unlock-memories, 13 March 2012

Historytrace can help you to explore your family memories and the faimly history which lies behind through close analysis of historical sources to bring to life your family heritage across Europe. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Nosing Around in the Past – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Andrea Kratzenberg.

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