The Sweet Scent of Childhood Memories
The smell of your grandparents' home, your mother's perfume, the aroma of rain and wet earth... The sweet scent of childhood memories remains engraved in our minds. We'll tell you how and why.
If you could remember the last trip you took, a series of visual images and a sequence of events may come to mind. But what about when you try to recall memories from your childhood? They may appear in the form of emotions, vague but intense sensations. And, of course, the sweet scent of childhood is unforgettable.
We’ve all experienced it: You’re walking down the street and, suddenly, a smell transports you to the past. The sensation is vivid – it’s as if you’re traveling in time. Maybe you never stopped to think about it, but the olfactory stimuli you’re receiving is sparking emotions that will accompany you throughout your entire life.
There are two interesting facts that we should keep in mind when it comes to memories. The first is that, while we’re an eminently visual species, during the first years of life, we establish memories mainly through our sense of smell. Babies use their sense of smell as soon as they’re born in order to find their mothers. And, up until the age of 10, the role of smells in the creation of memories is very important.
What’s more, the memories that different aromas evoke have a much more emotional component. When you remember a visual scene from your past of a conversation you had, you recall data and events. It’s a more precise and objective recovery of information.
However, when someone walks by wearing a perfume that you recognize, you become immersed in emotional states and sensations. At this point, you don’t remember so much what occurred at a specific moment… Rather, you remember the intimate and personal perceptions that you experienced with that scent.
The emotional brain
Our brains establish a powerful association between smells and internal states. Therefore, when we perceive that same olfactory stimulus, we’re overcome with the emotions that originally accompanied that smell.
But, what makes these kinds of memories so unique? Why are smells so capable of taking us on an emotional journey to childhood? Well, this occurs because the sense of smell is strongly associated with the emotional brain.
Before reaching the cerebral cortex, the stimuli that come from the sense of smell go through two principle cerebral areas. These are the amygdala and the hippocampus. Both of these regions have strong associations with emotions and memory. For this reason, smells impregnate and engrave themselves in the emotional memories we’re experiencing at the time.
And this occurs much more prominently in children. Why? Because the sense of smell is the main sense that they use in order to relate to the world in the initial stages of life. Therefore, smells allow us to access childhood memories that we wouldn’t be able to recall any other way because our memories from childhood tend to be very scarce.
Given all of this, children maintain memories from their early years that are strongly associated with emotional states. In the future, certain smells will take them back to their childhood.
Mom’s perfume will always remind them of the warm, comforting sensation of her embrace. The smell of fresh-baked cookies will invoke times of innocence and carelessness when they only stopped playing when it was time to eat.
In the same way, the smell of the summer rain on the earth activates memories of days out in the country. And the smell of playdough will, without a doubt, remind them of spending long hours playing with their siblings or playmates.
All of these memories invade them at a time when they least expect it – out of nowhere, a familiar aroma invades their senses. But, at the same time, they’ll constitute powerful anchors for reliving these emotions when they most need them.
In the future, when children need to feel loved, safe, protected, or happy, all they’ll need to do is seek out that familiar smell… By lighting a scented candle, making a special meal, unwrapping a fresh bar of soap… The sweet smell of childhood is a treasure that stays with us forever, a resource that will always be within our reach.
“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.”
– Diane Ackerman –