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  1. #1
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    Memories Associated with Scents/Smells

    I don't know if there's a per se psychological term associated with it. But I've been thinking the past few days about how certain smells will evoke very specific times and places for me. Especially since I was talking to an old friend and the same smell (Nag Champa incense) brings up memories of our freshman year in college. It's not a particularly pleasing smell for me, just neutral. But it sounds like part of the unpleasant physical reaction she gets from smelling it (besides allergies) is remembering the stress from that period of her life. The two other smells which always bring me back to a specific place are Secret brand deoderant, which I only used one time before buying the current stick in my medicine cabinent. That was a trip to Mexico to see the Mayan ruins, so the smell always makes me think of La Ruta Maya. And the other morning I had toaster waffles for breakfast, which took me back to the first weeks of living and working in Seattle.

    So I'm curious - does this happen to anybody else? What scents bring back what memories for you?

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  3. #2
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    Smell is the sense that is most closely tied with memory. There are no words specifically to describe smells—they are experienced on a more primal level than words can describe.

    Raspberry Lip smacker: It's Christmas 1978, and I'm at my grandparents' house reading the original Sassy magazine with Kristy McNichol on the cover.

    Raspberry, Black Cherry or Strawberry Koolaid: It's 1972 and I'm almost 7 years old, possibly selling glasses of Koolaid at a stand for 2˘, because that's all my mom would let us charge.

    Playschool: This was a place like a nursery school where I sometimes went when I was about 3. It was in a high school building (in the summer) and had a distinctive smell. I have only smelled it twice since then, once in an off-brand of Play-Doh-like clay from Kmart and once (inexplicably) in the entryway of a church building in whose parking lot I often rode my bike.

    Crayons: Duh, who isn't sent back by the smell of crayons?

    Flash powder: High school play!

    Pipe tobacco: Daddy!

    Pine needles: The first time I smelled these as an adult, up in the mountains (where there aren't even any lakes to speak of!), I was amazed—I thought that this was a smell that had long since vanished from the world, something that belonged to the time and place of my childhood that could never be gotten back. It had never occurred to me that it could exist anywhere else. (Same with the sound of a train whistle.)

  4. #3
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    Old, dried out and yellowish bars of Ivory soap remind me of my Grandpop's house in the early '60's. If they aren't that old, there is no association with the scent.

    Linseed oil: sitting on the floor in my bedroom painting. The rug is a very scratchy, very old red black and white rag rug, from my Grandmom's room. The pigments in the paint are crunchy because I didn't crush and blend them enough. But I like them.

    Diesel reminds me of my psychotic ex, mostly because he had a Viet Nam flashback every time he smelled it. But now it's my reaction and a general recall of him.

    Evening in Paris cologne or any child's cologne or makeup set: old wood floored Woolworth's. There seems to be a common scent underlying any of them but I can't ID it. It's probably a carrier oil.

    Formic acid. (ant nests, ant bites, but initital reaction is seeing a hole I dug in my old backyard, probably early '60's and the little white eggs I didn't know were eggs.)

  5. #4
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    I must respond to this, as I am most likely the only neuroscientist here and I do love spreading the dorky gospel.

    Smell is very closely linked neuroanatomically to the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory and emotion, especially the hippocampus and amygdala. In addition, olfactory information does not go through a thalamic relay, so it is much more "unfiltered" than most of our other sensory imformation. That is part of the reason why scent-triggered memories/feelings can seem so sharp and sudden.

    One interesting thing is that patients with schizophrenia tend to have impaired odor memory, detection, and discrimination. Schizophrenics also have anhedonia and impaired emotional processing, and there is a school of thought now that part of the reason that people with schizophrenia have emotional deficits is due to their impaired olfaction.

    For me, my biggest odor memory triggers are moth balls, which reminds me of my gradmother's walk-in shoe closet that I used to play in as a kid, scotch which reminds me of my father, and Tide which reminds me of my first boyfriend.

  6. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by amygdala
    I must respond to this, as I am most likely the only neuroscientist here and I do love spreading the dorky gospel.
    ...
    One interesting thing is that patients with schizophrenia tend to have impaired odor memory, detection, and discrimination. Schizophrenics also have anhedonia and impaired emotional processing, and there is a school of thought now that part of the reason that people with schizophrenia have emotional deficits is due to their impaired olfaction. ...
    Truly fascinating, amygdala! I'll have to ask my schizo friends about that...

    Side note: Because of some of my other interests I have up close and personal friendships with neurosurgeons and rocket scientists. You know how people commonly say "you don't have to be a rocket scientist (or brain surgeon)..." and now that saying has been warped into "brain scientist and rocket surgeon"? You've now made me able to claim acquaintance with all but the rocket surgeon. Hmmm, maybe one of my schizophrenic friends???

  7. #6
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    nag champa reminds me of the yoga ashram i lived in for awhile.

    nag champa and propane together make me think of an awesome house i lived in in new orleans.

    a certain combination of plastic, bread, and who-knows-what will evoke distinct memories of my lunchbox in elementary school, which was a very uncool thing to carry (paper bags or school lunches were hip). one day, someone-i never knew who-put fireworks in my lunchbox and blew it up on the playground! i never got to thank them...;)

  8. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by amygdala
    Smell is very closely linked neuroanatomically to the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory and emotion, especially the hippocampus and amygdala. In addition, olfactory information does not go through a thalamic relay, so it is much more "unfiltered" than most of our other sensory imformation. That is part of the reason why scent-triggered memories/feelings can seem so sharp and sudden.
    Wow! Thanks for the explanation. I knew that there were some very specific things evoked by those scents. But I had no idea that the part of the brain for both were linked. That's very cool.
    Quote Originally Posted by Katrin
    Pine needles: The first time I smelled these as an adult, up in the mountains (where there aren't even any lakes to speak of!), I was amazed—I thought that this was a smell that had long since vanished from the world, something that belonged to the time and place of my childhood that could never be gotten back. It had never occurred to me that it could exist anywhere else. (Same with the sound of a train whistle.)
    Yes! I think something that belonged to the time and place of my [life] that could never be gotten back is exactly the feeling evoked by my scents.

    And train whistles to it to me too. I've spent the past 2.5 years working in offices along the original Transcontinental Railroad line and also lived right by the Mopac Train line. So whenever I hear a whistle, it's a very comforting feeling. Actually, I'd forgotten about always hearing the trains on the Mopac line when I lived in Austin. The place I stayed on my last visit back was in the same neighborhood as my old place. And right when I was falling asleep, I heard a train whistle. I'd totally forgotten about that sound. But it gave me goose bumps because suddenly I felt like I was back in the time in my life when I lived in there.

  9. #8
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    the smell of "carribean cool" deodarant (the brand was teen spirit - i don't know if they make it anymore) always reminds me of the summers i spent at fine arts camp in michigan. really good memories - just playing wonderful music all day long with nothing else to think about.

  10. #9
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    My grandmother had a set of emerald green depression glass juice glasses. When she died (when I was 8), we ended up with only one of them. I have never been a big milk fan, but when I would visit her she made me drink milk, and I always drank it from one of those glasses. There was a very particular smell of the combination of milk and depression glass that I associated with her. I never really realized it until about 2 years after she died. I would only drink milk from that glass, and sometimes I would drink a glass if I was feeling sad because it would make me think of her. One day I was pouring some milk and the glass slipped from my hand and shattered. I started sobbing uncontrollably and my mother ran over and was trying to console me. I think she yought I'd gotten cut or something. I remember her being kind of freaked out that I was freaking out, and she kept saying, "It's okay. It's only a glass." I couldn't speak at first but I finally managed to blurt out, "But it reminded me of Gram!" I remember her kind of freezing and saying really quietly, "Oh, I didn't know." Kinda sad. Made me a bit teary-eyed just telling the story. If I ever found one of those glasses at an anitque store or anywhere I would probably crap my pants from excitement, not to mention pay gobs of money for it. So yeah, smell and memory are definitely linked.

    And thanks to amygdala for that great explanation!

  11. #10
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    Oh my goodness, I love this topic (I need to spend more time on these here boards!), because I was just talking with my mom this weekend about how a scent can take you right back to a memory you weren't even aware you still had!

    ~ lilac deodorant (teen spirit) - high school early morning choir

    ~ almay perfume (late 80's/early 90s) - middle school and my first punky -crafty pal, Colleen, who often wore it

    ~ strange plasticky/damp smell--it often emerges in the presentation auditorium at work - this rental bungalow near the sea we often stay in in Wales when we visit hubby's parents

    ~ 80s avon perfume (don't know which one by name) - my childhood friend Jackie's mom (Jackie and I often slept over at one another's house)

    ~play-doh - 1st grade

    ~skunk - 1st grade--I'd never smelled a real skunk but did get to "buy" skunk scratch n sniff stickers at the 1st grade annual classroom store project

    ~ bonnie belle or avon strawberry lotion - summer taking swimming lessons--one of my friends had this lotion and it smelled so good!

    ~ tar (being laid for blacktop) - summer at daycare, early cool morning before a field trip somewhere

    ~ coconutty suntan lotion - summer field trip, day care, to the beach. We all got to wear yellow smiley face tees (so we could be easily identified).

    ~ lemonade / Off gel / pine needles - daycare fieldtrips coupled with picnics and game days at the Bendix woods


    so many more, waiting for the smell to invoke them!


 
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