A sniff is the road to a thousand memories

‘Tis the season for scent. Pumpkin pie, mulled cider, and roast turkey on the table; fir trees and candy canes in the air. Or, depending on your home, burnt marshmallow, burnt gingerbread, mud, or an inability to smell anything at all because your nose hairs are frozen. But let’s focus on the positive. These are the scents we should savor, and should encourage young children to savor, because down the lines these scents will be the key to remembering childhood.

From Sunshine Pub.Co.Phila.

We are all amnesiacs, suffering a specific kind of memory loss called “infantile amnesia”. Think back to the earliest event in your life that you can recall – not just that you know happened, but that you actually remember happening. I can guess with some confidence that you were 3 or 4 years old, because that’s when most people report their earliest memory. You might have been a bit younger if your earliest memory is a birth, death, or move, but almost certainly you were at least 2. Very few people report memories from the first or second year of life, and even fewer scientists believe them.

It’s not just those first two years that are missing, either; there’s a gradual development of memory over the first decade of life, so you probably have far fewer recollections from when you were 5 than when you were 15. The good news is that those memories aren’t necessarily lost forever; you might just need a special aid to remembering them. Specifically, you need a smell.

The unique character of odor-prompted remembrance was shown in a scientific study involving just shy of 100 senior citizens. The seniors either saw the name, saw a picture, or inhaled the scent of 20 aroma-rich objects, from soap to whiskey to violet to anise. If a memory of their lives came to mind in the following 30 seconds, they wrote it down; if all memories remained dormant, they moved on to the next prompt.

Odor was the key to unlocking the earliest memories. When seniors read a word or looked at a picture, about 30% of the memories they recalled were from adolescence (11 to 20 years of age), with about 10-15% from each other decade of life. When seniors sniffed the whiskey or the soap, however, almost 50% of the memories they reported were from early childhood, when age was measured in a single digit.

These odor-prompted memories were a little rarer and less emotional than those inspired by a word or image, but they also inspire more “feeling of being brought back in time to the occurrence of the event”. It’s not clear whether people agreed with this just because they mentally went further back in time, to an earlier memory, or if there was something more vivid about the odor-prompted remembrance. Either way, though, scents seem to be more powerful reminders of our earliest years than either words or images.

That being said, I’m not sure I will lean in and breathe deep of Thanksgiving dinner, and it has nothing to do with my sister’s cooking. I have never been a particularly scent-oriented person; I don’t fondly recall my grandmother’s soap, or my mother’s cooking, and I care more about the warm gooiness of freshly-baked cookies than of their aroma. There are those out there who are super-tasters and super-smellers; I am at best average at both, and I suspect it makes those odor-inspired memories slower to surface. But it is a good excuse for filling the childhood home with as many scents as possible, in the hope that some scent will stick and help induce a little mental time travel later in life.

Willander, J., & Larsson, M. (2006). Smell your way back to childhood: Autobiographical odor memory Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13 (2), 240-244 DOI: 10.3758/BF03193837


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