smelling memories

(On my way back to Chicago for another meeting.) Sit quietly, close your eyes, and recall the scent of a lemon … soy sauce … pepper … gasoline … a baked apple. Inhale through your nose as you remember these smells. I find this entertaining, and I can get quite precise about it. For example, I can choose whether to remember a bitter lemon smell (with some of the white pith), or the pure scent of the inside of the fruit.

It appears that memories of smells decay more slowly than other sensory memories. This is a bit surprising, because “each olfactory neuron in the epithelium only survives for about 60 days, to be replaced by a new cell.” Dr. Maturin in one of the Patrick O’Brien novels notices the power of smells to restore memories and hypothesizes that it’s because we don’t have many words for scents. He thinks that because we translate our visual and auditory experiences into language, we tend to forget them, whereas we retain our olfactory sensations in their raw form.

When people (like O’Brien and Proust) write about memory and smell, they usually describe the power of real scents to evoke lost memories. The reverse is interesting, too: the power of deliberate recollection to conjure up imaginary smells.

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5 Responses to smelling memories

  1. Apparently, it is also the case that when you get older you cannot recognize new sense as easily/at all (cannot find the link, my apologies). Learning art history or appreciation, cooking, classical music, etc. are now believed to change what you actually sense and experience. I wonder if this may prove Dr. Maturin (my all-time favorite fictional character by the way – even though I am only through “The Far Side of the World”) to be somewhat correct. Since we have to attune ourselves to bother to notice such sensory inpputs as smells for which we may have no vocabulary, perhaps we have, in a manner of speaking, gone out of our way to notice them, and thus we seem to place a greater mental importance to it. I spent many morning walking from the College Park metro to Campus, but habit has blurred them each from each. Still, I can recall as I sit here how the grass smells in the morning, the smell of certain trees on the way, etc. This topic makes me long to finally finish off the Merleau-Ponty I abandoned this summer on my shelf, or perhaps, in the spirit of sensory memory, I should just drink a decent Merlot and call it even.

  2. airth10 says:

    Interesting thoughts on smells.

    I noticed that people don’t always smell the same smells. One smell that I smell is decomposing food. My wife doesn’t. I recall the streets of New York on hot summers days through the smell of decomposing food, in the garbage and from spills outside restaurants. I have also smelt that smell in carpets, where food has been dropped and not cleaned. I often smell that smell in the dining rooms of cruise ships, although I didn’t smell it on my last cruise.

  3. Peter Levine says:

    After additional phenomenological investigation, I find that I must visualize the source of an imaginary smell in order to imagine the scent. To conjure up a gasoline smell, I have to think of a gas station. Is this just me?

  4. airth10 says:

    I don’t think you “must visualize the source of an imaginary smell in order to imagine the scent”. I have often smelt diesel fuel without seeing its source. That smell takes me back to B.A. and its harbor of sea going ships, and being on ships. I am sure diesel still smells the same.

    Something I can not remember is the smell of cigarettes in my youth, when me parents smoked them. But I do think cigarettes smell worse today because of the substance put in them. Perhaps their worse smell is a conspiracy to get people to hate them more.

  5. airth10 says:

    Just to be capricious, does Democracy have a scent? Perhaps if it did it would be better understood.

    I imagine someday there being a scent call Democracy, sold by somebody like an Elizabeth Taylor or a greatly admired president.

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