Are five year old’s allowed to drive a car? I hope so, because it happened to me today. I was driving to a meeting when suddenly the time machine of memory took over and I was five years old again. It took me a minute to escape from memory and focus on the road. I kept getting flashes of being a kid in the living room of family friends possibly when they were looking after me while my brother was busy getting making his appearance in the world. It took a couple of minutes to figure out what was going on and what triggered these memories.
Scent is a powerful memory stimulant. According to this article in Psychology Today the power of scent likely has to do with how scents are processed in our brains.
“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.”
When I was a kid we saw family friends, a couple with one daughter the same age as me, very regularly. Paul and my dad had been roommates and I believe worked together for a while. They were the people who looked after me when my brother was born and they are the people other than family members who are the most persistent in my memories of childhood. They are also the people who most often appear in my memories (and sometimes in my Facebook feed). Those memories are always triggered by the same smell.
In this particular instance it was emanating from the pick-up truck in front of me. The driver had his hand out the window and he was smoking the same brand of cigarette that Paul smoked – I think he has given it up now since he has become a distance runner. To be clear, I hate the smell of cigarettes. I can’t stand walking behind a smoker or sitting next to one on a bus. The stale cigarette smoke smell is often overpowering and frankly – repulsive. I will move seats or stand on the bus for an hour to avoid sitting next to a strong-smelling smoker. There is one exception and it is this particular brand of cigarettes. I don’t know what they are called, but they have a white plastic filter and brown paper. I couldn’t find an image that seemed to be the ones I remember to help me identify them.
I find that particular brand to be very appealing – not to actually smoke, but to smell. Today I followed the pick up for as long as I was able and as long as he was going in my direction so I could continue enjoying wafts of memory. Each hint of the smell – it is hard to get more than just a hint when you are following someone on the highway – brought memory and feelings of comfort.
It is amazing that the hint of a smell can immediately transport me back in time more than 30 years and provide me with very clear images and feelings. As I write this I find it hard to pull forth those same memories with any clarity. The conscious effort to remember is devoid of emotion and context. The fuzzy images I can pull up are incomplete and static. My experience brought on by the scent of memory while driving was immersive and rich. This was not the first time I have be transported by this smell. It has happened to me while walking and bike riding. It is an uncommon brand so the encounters are few and far between, leaving me to relish each experience.
In an age of chemical cleaning products, air fresheners and non-smokers, I wonder what smells will trigger these kinds of time-travelling memories for our kids?
It is amazing that the hint of a smell can immediately transport me back in time more than 30 yearsClick To Tweet