What does the smell of a freshly-opened packet of mint gum mean to you? For me, it’s being 14, opening a brand new notebook and starting to write the beginning (and usually only the beginning – I was notoriously bad at finishing stuff at that age) of my next story.
What about creosote? That’s summer holidays, pavements melting in the heat, the horizon shimmering hazily and the air filled with the drone of lawnmowers.
Imperial Leather soap? My grandmother’s downstairs bathroom, decorated in underwater shades of green, with plants on the windowsill and a shower that had a crinkly-textured plastic screen.
Linseed oil? I’m a student again, mixing up glazes for oil paintings while the sun slants in the attic windows of my college studio, and beyond them, a view of the beach and the sea, beckoning to me.
And then there’s the certain sort of washing powder that reminds me of a friend I had at school; the smell of coffee, which transports me to mornings at my parents’ house; the scent of bruised summer grass, which reminds me of playing in the garden with my mum’s springer spaniel, Jennie, who was part of our family when I was very young.
I started thinking about the connection between smell and memory after reading this wonderful blog post by AbiBurlingham about the power of imagination, then having a conversation with her on Twitter with about how, for both of us, certain scents trigger strong memories.
Apparently, this occurs because of a link between the olfactory bulb and the amygdyla (the part of the brain which processes emotion) and hippocampus (the part of the brain which is, among other things, responsible for learning and memory). The memories certain smells like the ones listed above trigger for me are so strong, I’m literally transported back to the time and place I first smelled them – almost an olfactory hallucination (you can find a more scientific explanation of this phenomenon here).
I also have a memory for smells. When I was 12, my parents took me and my sister to Switzerland for 2 weeks where they were teaching a course. The village we stayed in was right up in the Alps, surrounded by mountains, and the air was so fresh you could taste it – clear and cold and crisp. When I look through the photos I took back then, I can smell that air again, and that smell takes me straight back to looking out of my hotel room window each morning at the little white church opposite, with cloud rising up from the valley behind it and the rising sun pink on the mountains that surrounded the village.
Are there certain smells which trigger strong memories for you? What are they, and where do they take you?