scents bring back memory

If in doubt, wash your hair

It only takes a passing whiff of violets and I’m transported back 30 years. Elbows resting on a crochet doily of a hardwood dresser, gazing up at my nana as she places perfume behind her ears. It’s a simple, uneventful memory but one that I always feel immediately and strongly.

While songs evoke hazy flashbacks and feelings, and photos bring back thoughts of the past, certain scents have always had the strongest power in evoking memories. It turns out there’s a reason why.

Smell is the only one of our senses that isn’t first processed through our brain’s relay station, the thalamus. Scents get a pass straight to the smell center of the brain, the olfactory bulb, which has a direct connection to the parts of our mind associated with emotion and memory. In short, aromas can trigger instant recollections.

Beyond the power of smell to tap into our history, certain scents have a feel-good factor unattached to past events.

“Scents like lemon, lime, orange, bergamot, and grapefruit have captured the vibrancy and radiance of the sun,” explained LeeYen Anderson, founder of The Scentsible Tribe and an Aroma Yoga teacher who has been tapping into the benefits of essential oils since she was 18. “They are uplifting, happy scents.”

There are an array of smells, associated with experiences, that can help positively impact our moods. This pathway to experiencing things vicariously seems fitting at a time when our favourite places may be inaccessible.

“Forest bathing is so good for relieving stress and moving into a state of safety instead of fear,” added Anderson. “A lot of the tree essential oils give us that same connection to nature and the sense of worthiness we feel from that.”

We also have a huge capacity to distinguish and categorize smells. In 2014 scientists at the Rockefeller University in New York flipped previous findings on the capabilities of our nose on their head. Our noses can theoretically detect at least 80 million and up to a trillion potential different smells, which is quite a bit more than the 10,000 or so it was initially believed humans could pick up on.

“The subtleties that our noses know and the power of aroma to create an experience makes the process of getting a scent 100% right even more important,” said Alban Mayne, co-founder of Beauty Disrupted. “The scent of our Ocean Magic range took nine months of working with various organic, natural fragrances to get the balance just right. Every time I use it, it transports me directly to my favorite island.”

At a time when trips abroad may still be off on the horizon, scent is an even more powerful tool for armchair (or shower) travel. Not only do certain smells stir up emotions and memories of places we’ve visited but they also invite us to daydream of where we want to go next.

Karyn Miller Writer

Karryn Miller is a native of Auckland, New Zealand, for whom “home” has also meant Tokyo, Hanoi, Mumbai, Seoul, and Washington, DC. As a hotel public relations consultant with a passion for travel, she has also published pieces in dozens of travel books, magazines, and newspapers around the world. Most recently, together with a global collective of mothers, she co-authored the book “Mother Wild,” and launched a series of wellness retreats. In 2021 Karryn relocated with her family to the second snowiest city in the world, Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan.

Photos by Daiga Ellaby

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