Using scent to evoke memories

Using scent to evoke memories

“Scents are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack.” Rudyard Kipling

Scent has great power – it evokes memories.

Jasmine is my first flat, no larger than the size of a garage, perched in someone else’s backyard. Mine, but not quite mine. Home, but not quite home. The old wire-weave bed with a kapok mattress that sinks in the middle. Kitchen utensils from my grandmother. A fold-down wooden pale green picnic table. A cut crystal glass vase overrun with jasmine in wild curls of pale pink and shiny green. Scribbled notes for an essay on the archaeology of Troy. Sucking sticky chocolate fudge from my fingers thinking about Cassandra. Knowing how it felt to tell the truth and not be believed.

We have all experienced the sudden unexpected moments when the trace of a scent instantly reminds us of the glorious summer we spent in the South of France, an incident from our childhoods, tramping through tropical forests after a cyclone, or a lost love. Scents hold personal associations for each of us. There are certain scents that allow us to recall memories with bright clarity – we literally feel that we are transported back in time.

Proust believed that each hour of our lives is stored away in a smell and a taste. When we reexperience those smells and tastes later in life they trigger memories. But there is a scientific reason for the strong connection between smell and memory. The olfactory nerve transports information about smells to both the brain’s limbic system, where our memories are formed and our emotions are regulated, and the cortex, where we form conscious thought. Our sense of smell also has the power to suppress rationality and stimulate creativity. So, smell tends to evoke memories with more emotional force than any other sense.

Journaling memories using scent

Use the following questions and prompts to journal memories based on your sense of smell.

  • What were the important scents in your childhood? Make a list. Some of mine are: Grandma’s rose talcum powder; fresh grass and gunpowder the morning after Guy Fawkes; salt and brine on holidays to Mount Maunganui; jasmine in spring; honeymania perfume I wore to Australia on a holiday with my mother. Write a memory based on the scents that evoke your childhood. For a stronger sense of recall, try to replicate some of these scents.
  • What scent for you is associated with warmth and family? Write a memory based on this.
  • What does home smell like to you? Capture a memory of home by writing about the scents of home. Connect the smells with feelings. Incorporate adjectives to describe smell: wispy, airy, fresh, faint, light, floral, acrid, sharp, stale, musty. Associate smells with other senses: sight (is a smell dark or light? What colour is it? Is it clear or hazy); sound (is the smell harmonious or dissonant, loud or quiet?); touch (is the smell sharp or dull, rough or smooth, jagged, heavy, light, hot, cold?); taste (bitter, sour, sweat, salty).
  • Write a memory based on the smell of burning. There are many different types of burning you could consider, such as: cigarette, cigar or pipe smoke; campfire; wild fire; burning rubber; burning oil.
  • Create a list of personal smells: what does spring smell like, summer, winter, autumn, the end of the school year, Christmas, mother’s kitchen, bedtime, grandma’s house, and so on?

If you would like other inspirations on writing memories, join our online course: Family Memories: Stories of Belonging.

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