Our Senses Take Us Back In Time

You hear Proust, you think cake – or is that just me?

And after I’ve had a little think about cake and the madeleines I must bake, I think about the power of smell and taste to take us back in time.

Our experiences get encoded in the brain – memory – with associated sensory details like smells and tastes. When we encounter those stimuli again, they trigger recollections. Our memories are stored across the brain. And our exlicit memories, the episodic ones, which are about events that happened to you, are stored in three important areas of the brain: the hippocampus, the neocortex and the amygdala.

Evocative smells for me include Italian herbs and water dripping from just-watered hanging baskets first thing in the morning. These are from a blissful holiday in Italy when I was nine. Then there’s Cadbury’s chocolate – I was an early riser as a toddler and Cadbury’s buttons were left out for me as a 5am snack! I love the smell of petrol (my brother raced motorbikes), Golden Virgina tobacco leaves – but not the smoke (my whole family smoked roll-ups when I was young). And here’s an odd one: Manhattan rubbish trucks. NYC has been my happy place since my late teens when I studied dance there and I love that horrible smell. And finally, the men’s aftershave Kouros. When I was young I performed in professional pantomimes. One year it was Cinderella and the comedian Jeff Stevenson played Buttons. I had quite the crush on him and it took me the whole five week run to pluck up the courage to ask him what his aftershave was. Kouros! I always give it a sniff if I see it and smile to myself. Jeff and I are now friendly on social media, which is lovely. (I can also identify my friends by their washing powder. I have a very strong sense of smell. But we’ll talk about the vagus nerve another time!)

How does this all work? When we sniff something, the information is sent to the amygdala and hippocampus. Olfaction (smelling) is the only sense that gets processed in this brain area and is the sense most strongly linked to brain areas that are involved in emotion, learning, and memory. When we smell an aroma like coffee, it activates hippocampal cells where related memories are encoded. We essentially relive the memory by unlocking all the sensory associations.

That’s why a faint whiff of perfume you haven’t smelled since childhood can transport you back decades with striking clarity and emotion. Our aroma and flavor memories are densely interwoven with the context of associated experiences. So even a small sensory trigger unlocks vivid recollection of the people, places, emotions tied to that honeysuckle, wet dog, or vintage soap! Our memories are encoded with the flavors that marked them.

In Swann’s Way, Proust’s protagonist is given a madeleine. The sight of the cake means nothing to him but the taste transports him back in time to childhood when, on a Sunday morning, his aunt Léonie, would dip her cake into her tea and give the young Proust a bite, “…dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.” He writes, “But when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

What smells and flavours take you back in time? Do leave a comment 🙂

Interested in how to access your memories?

Join me for my online workshop Accessing Memory for Memoir Writing on November 13 (replay video available).

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Dear Marnie