Scent – the mind’s time machine

Please don’t be put off. This is a longer post than usual.

There’s some truly fascinating, touching material here, all contributed by Moodnudges readers.

In my current work, I’m focused on the promising potential of fragrances experienced during sleep to lift emotional well-being, via memory.

Last week I therefore asked for experiences of memories triggered by scents. The response has been gratifying.

In case you don’t have time to read the whole thing (although I believe you’ll be thankful if you do), a couple of overall reflections are that: (a) many of these associations date back to childhood; (b) sometimes the fragrances involved are highly specific; and (c) not everyone’s smell-induced memories are positive ones, in fact some are disturbing.

A huge thank you to each and every person who made this important and really very moving anthology possible.

Let’s begin.

It’s not so surprising that some products designed specifically to smell good, end up triggering evocative memories.

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Margo: The one smell that has the strongest memory-evoking effect on me is Eau de Cologne (nr 4711).

My grandmother’s dressing closet in the bedroom smelled like this. Especially when I opened the drawer with handkerchiefs and a beautiful hand mirror and brush inside. I still have these items 😉 I must have been about 8 or 9 years old. It gives me a good feeling! It reminds me of her love for me as a granddaughter and a feeling of belonging and being accepted (while I write this down I tear up; I loved her so much!)

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Lisa: Coconut oil. I grew up in Southern California in the 60s. We oiled our bodies with “suntan lotion” with SPF of probably zero or 2. Coconut oil brings me back to the beach in the old days.

Also vanilla. I just love, love the smell of vanilla. I don’t even have a sweet tooth. It doesn’t take me anywhere. It just makes me smile.

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Georgeanna: The interesting paradox for me is that my rational mind can’t call up this kind of memory. It is HUGELY evocative when it happens, but it happens by chance, not design, because I can’t tell what smell is necessarily going to take me to a particular place until it happens. For example, a random bar of soap purchased at the local supermarket suddenly rocketed me back to my days living in Japan, where the soap in the shower must have smelled the same way. I couldn’t take my nose away and I couldn’t use the soap to wash… I just keep it in my closet to use as ‘transportation’ back to those memories. But I never would have imagined it could happen until it did. Nor would I know what to use to try to reconstruct memories, or which ones might be powerful. It seems to happen by surprise to me, and more by lucky happenstance than by design.

Alison: The fragrance? Detchema perfume by Revillon, Paris. Launched in 1953. No longer really available other than in highly expensive (£200 plus [$260+]) speciality parfumiers.

What it reminds me of. My late mum – she wore it all the time. I remember being loved and cuddled and cared for, occasionally chastised.

How it makes me feel. It makes me very sad – she died 15 years ago, and I miss her dreadfully. But it does make me think of happy times and a very fortunate childhood.

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Emily: One particularly weird but strong memory I get from a smell is Hollister perfume. When I was around 13/14, every girl I knew was obsessed with those big spray bottles of Hollister perfume, it was such a big social status item, and recently I found the last dregs of a bottle in my old room. It immediately brought back that feeling of long summers spent at the parks in my town with my childhood friends, laughing and making up dance routines and eating those 50p mix bags of sweets from the shop. It’s so lovely to have that experience of being transported back to such a specific time in my life.

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Kate: The fragrance? Patchouli oil.

What it reminds me of. My first girlfriend.

How it makes me feel. Makes my heart beat faster if I smell it now, and memories flood back. Best explained by a rush as if transporting me back to the heady days of long ago.

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Mary: The power of smell is so deep seated!

A really powerful one for me is Imperial Leather soap, which takes me back to my gran’s bathroom and thus being a little girl of about six years old and in a place where I’m safe – if a bit cold. No central heating there!

Likewise the smell of warm grass cuttings takes me to the bottom of our garden and making dens down there near the compost heap. Happy, summer holidays sort of feeling.

(My favourite smell is of behind lurcher ears. Warm, dusty, cuddly dog. Bliss.)

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Angela: The smell that I find most evocative is blossom ‘flavoured’ talc / perfume / hand cream. It took me by surprise when I smelt it last year – I burst into tears, in the middle of a department store! 🙂 It reminds me of my nan who died when I was about 12 as she always used apple blossom talc and there was always a big tub of it on her dressing table.

The moment I re-smelt that fragrance, I was transported back to being small and the sound of her voice, whisked back to her flat (where I spent many happy childhood days), and flooded with many happy memories I thought I’d forgotten. I didn’t remember her favourite blend of talc until I smelt it again – definitely a forgotten smell memory!

Whilst it made me cry, they were happy tears as it was lovely to feel her close to me again, and a delightful reminder of happy days. It was also great to be reminded of the smell that made me think of her.

I did buy some of the hand cream that made me cry, much to the bemusement of the shop assistant!

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Jon: One reflection was very specific about a particular aspect of motherhood.

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Jenny: For me, the strongest memory-evoking smell is the aroma of a newborn baby’s head (the crown). It only lasts a few weeks. Reminds me of giving birth to my three kids and the joy this brings when I can smell it again. It also triggers a surge of dopamine for new mums (…if only I could bottle that smell!??)

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Jon: You might think of smoke as having an unpleasant smell, but that’s definitely not true of all types of smoke.

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Anona: My Great grandfather (Gran) always smoked a particular tobacco. I do not know what it was called, but I remember the smell. He died in 1966 and in the late 1980s I went into an antique shop in Bedford, which had let the first floor to a lady selling lace-making items. I walked in the first time, and was immediately back in my great grandparents’ home. It was the same smell from the antique dealer’s pipe. It made me feel at home and excited!

My father was in the Army and I always felt rootless, as my parents had 21 homes in 20 years. We always went to visit Dad’s grandparents when we were in the UK and this is the smell that I always associate with them. My great grandmother (Nan) would always give us ham sandwiches and angel cake. Now whenever I see angel cake I always smile, think of Nan, and remember her sitting in her chair. She died 6 months short of her 100th birthday.

As you can see, these memories take me back to my family being together and just – smile. (My parents are also dead now, so there is just my brother and I left.)

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Danielle: Your piece instantly made me think of my strongest smell/memory connection – the smell of a wood-burning fire (which I affectionately call “snow smell”.) This is because the smell reminds me of many very enjoyable family holidays in the Australian Snowy Mountains as a child. I grew up (and still live) in Sydney, Australia, and my house had electric heating, so the wood fire smell for me is strongly connected to our skiing trips. It always makes me smile and think of our beautiful alpine region.

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Jean: This was an easy question for me. The answer is peat smoke. I was born in Ireland and although we moved to England when I was four, we spent every summer holiday back at my Nan’s house. She had a peat-fuelled cooking range, so every time I smell peat smoke I’m back in her kitchen, and I remember all the happy times we had on those holidays.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of Islay single malt whisky!

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Jon: Nature’s own smells stir up strong memories for many.

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Anne: My very strong memory is around spring blossom. When I was a child we had both almond and cherry blossom trees in our garden. I used to love both the look of the trees and their lovely perfume. Recently I was out running by the canal and I closed my eyes for a second and took in the beautiful pungent smell of the spring blossom trees which immediately had a soporific effect on me.

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Vanesa: For me hawthorn blossom evokes memories of childhood – long days spent out on my bike with friends playing at the local park.

This scent gives me a feeling of the freedom of being a child, a time when ‘perfect’ days were infinitely possible.

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Jackie: I think my favourite is the smell of lilac, it takes me back to being a teenager as a neighbour had a tree. I had freedom in our garden and watching my Dad gardening was a joy for me as he was my safety parent. Miss those days.

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Tracy: A very distinct smell for me is oil of spike lavender. Evokes memories of my youth. I had an adorable little pony and used this oil on his face on hot long summer days to keep the flies away from his eyes. I was young, happy, and carefree – happy days.

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Lizzie: The fragrance? The honey smell of heather in flower under warm sun. Reminds me of holidaying with my own children on Exmoor and the smell reminding me then of happy summer holidays in my own childhood. How it makes me feel – happy and free.

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James: The fragrance? Mint. Reminds me of my Nan’s garden. A lovely reminder of a very happy childhood.

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Christine: The fragrant and subtle scent of freesias reminds me of happy times with my mother. She always said ‘flowers are for the living,’ when planning her death when terminally ill with cancer, so didn’t want flowers being wasted on her when she was dead. We compromised and just had a single bouquet of freesias on her coffin which was later taken to a hospice and, instead, family and friends gave donations which went to Marie Curie Cancer Care.

I now always have at least one bunch of freesias in my apartment, and when I catch the scent in the air I imagine her smiling.

I have a very keen sense of smell which is powerful for me both positively and negatively.

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Siobhan: As soon as I read your email the one scent that sprang to mind was orange blossom, which not only has several associations for me but is my absolute favourite scent.

I grew up in South Africa and we had family friends who lived on a farm with, among other crops, acres of orange trees. I am transported back to a dark warm evening as a small child standing on the veranda with my mother saying ‘Come and smell the orange blossom.’ The next day we wandered in the sunshine among the trees and my mother explained how flowers and pollination worked.

I’m now a garden designer.

Years later my father bought me a little bottle of orange blossom scent. I don’t know why he did but I treasured it.

So the scent of orange blossom triggers happy childhood memories but also makes me wistful for long ago times and places, and of my late parents.

Although the scent is evocative of these things it is also to me a sort of distillation of beauty and something quite rarefied. Like some music. Don’t know if any of this makes sense. It’s hard to put into words.

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Andrew: The fragrance? The smell of freshly grazed grass on a pony’s or horse’s breath as it befriends one by exchanging breath.

It reminds me of the loyal equine friends I have had, especially from my childhood. Makes me feel content, calm, peaceful, privileged.

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Glenda: The fragrance? New cut grass/lawn. It reminds me of my father. Good memories.

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Jenny: The smell? Real Christmas trees. Reminds me of my childhood Christmases, which were always magical, even though many aspects of my childhood were very unhappy. Makes me feel happy and hopeful.

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Carol: New-mown grass reminds me of spring coming in childhood in suburban London – my father cutting the grass – happy smell & ‘Oh, it’s really here again’ thoughts.

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Jon: One salutary lesson for me is that not all smell/memory associations are positive ones. To respect the contributors, I’ve identified them simply by the initial letter of their first name.

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B: The smell? Plumerias. Reminds me of my childhood, especially during summertime. It does remind me of how beautiful it is, helping friends picking these flowers for the whole month of May, every day, for everyday offering in church. What does that make me feel? Sadness, also with loneliness that I was not included in that process. Seems like the only ones included were the rich, and or with beauty, and not meant for some ugly duckling like me.

Wow, this is not what I expected.

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L: The smell of furniture/floor polish with an undertone of strong tea leaves reminds me of boarding school, where the polished wooden floors of the main corridors were swept with slightly damp tea leaves to gather up the dust more efficiently. It makes me feel lonely and fearful.

Actually, accessing this memory, I realise that this probably explains why I retch and want to cry when I’m using furniture polish…

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G: The smell is brown alcohol – rye whiskey or scotch. My parents smelled like that, especially associated with unpleasant times with them – made me feel a little queasy and a little scared, later angry. I drank rye and ginger once after high school and got awfully sick – never again – sometimes vodka or wine, until I realized that all alcohol triggers headaches for me.

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G: I have a background of abuse and need to stay in the present day. I do use essential oils, strong-smelling ones to stay grounded, but I wouldn’t use smells to evoke memories as I experience currently flashbacks, body memories which can be debilitating.

For me, the particular smell is tobacco, which makes me feel terrified, helpless and powerless.

Sorry if this is hard-hitting. Just wanted to add my experience.

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C: Ginger tea = morning sickness = the mid-90s and a general feeling of instability.

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Jon: A particular type of weather received one mention.

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Judi: The supercharged scent of ozone after a rolling thunderstorm transports me to summer storms of my childhood growing up in Arizona. While thunderstorms are quite the rare occurrence here in San Francisco, those few times we do get them are magical. I’ll spend hours on end, watching the flashes light up the sky, listening to the hard rain dance upon the roof, and drink in the crisp aroma of the freshly washed air. Something I wish I could experience it more often than just once or twice every few years.

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Jon: Cooking and baking smells often have strong memory associations.

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Anne: The smell of hot sausage rolls have the strongest memory-evoking effect on me.

It reminds me of Christmas Eve when I was a kid in the 70s. I would come home from buying presents with my pocket money (Hi Karate or Brut for the men, Yardley or hankies with roses on for the women). When I walked in, all you could smell was hot sausage rolls my Mam would be baking. To me the smell was Christmas/family/safety/love/warmth. Having these memories triggered makes me feel emotional, makes me feel close to my brilliant Mam and Dad who are no longer here. Yes, sausage rolls make me cry! (In a nice way.)

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Jan: I have a very fond memory of childhood visits to my Nan, and associate the smell of a paraffin heater with those visits. Paraffin is not a commonly used source of heating in homes now, but I do occasionally come across it in greenhouses, keeping out the frost. Since my days as a child I have only once come across the combination of smells that takes me back completely to my Nan’s house. I suppose it’s a lost smell now, the smell of the paraffin heater and cooked bacon. That to me is the smell I would wake up to when I was staying at my Nan and Grandad’s house and I associate all the feelings of being a young child, happy in the family home with it. Would this be uniquely British?

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6 thoughts on “Scent – the mind’s time machine

  1. I was so amazed that the first post by Margo mentioned 4711 eau de cologne. It was as if she was writing exactly about my memory of my (German) Omi. I only ever saw her once a year when we went for the summer holidays to Germany. The 4711 bottle and the smell are very powerful memories.

    The other association I have is with boxwood hedges. There must have been boxwood hedges in her garden because that smell transports me to childhood experiences too.

    The smell of Nivea takes me back to beach holidays on the Baltic coast and another cream – Bébé – which we didn’t have in England – is a strong connection too.

  2. Somewhat belatedly, here is my share. I had a very interesting experience many years ago. I knocked on a friend’s door and when she opened the door the smell of cigarette smoke and hot air hit me. My immediate reaction was to feel very happy and think what a beautiful smell. I was shocked! The smell took me back to summer holidays at my grandparents place near the beach, north of Sydney. My grandfather would sit in his living room with a fire burning, chain smoking, and I realised that I actually loved the smell because of very happy childhood memories. This realisation eventually helped me to give up my own serious nicotine addiction. I would go back to it if I could, it makes me happy.

  3. Fabulous article, thoroughly enjoyed reading all contributions, most were so emotional. Just shows the power of fragrance and the mind. .well done Jon, more like this please! X

  4. I want to add this, from Toni, who had some powerful memories of her own:

    She said: I think this study you are doing for fragrance and memory for sleep enhancement is very interesting.

    One smell that takes me back is anything smelling like Cinnabar perfume by Estee Lauder. This is a perfume my grandmother used. She passed away in 2003, but any time I smell this, I think of her. It’s comforting to me. It used to be sad and I couldn’t smell it without being upset. But now, it makes me happy. An odd impression I’ve had (and maybe this was just my imagination), I actually felt like she was there when I smelled the perfume. I have only smelled this a few times, and only once could I trace this to someone passing by. The other times I would be standing there, and it would appear out of nowhere. I wasn’t scared by this, only immediately began to look for her. Describing this now makes me a little sad, because obviously she isn’t here so why would I look. But being in the moment with this scent made me feel loved. (Another time I felt she was there was when a mourning dove visited my back porch a few years ago. I didn’t get too close, but it kept looking at me for a while. It must have been there 5-10 minutes. Definitely more than the average bird. I told my husband, and he said it was possible. I shared this with a friend who said the same thing.)

    Another smell that takes me back is baked chicken. My mother would cook this every Sunday for lunch. While we were waiting, we would be watching TV, specifically the Professional Bowling Association. Good times and a much simpler life, just being a kid and not having to worry about taking care of things.

    Cut grass also takes me back. My mom would take care of this, as she likes to garden and my dad has allergies. So many summer days and early evenings when she would mow the lawn. I even like the sound of the lawn mower. Kind of like white noise, rain, and ocean waves – comforting things to me when I need to get to sleep or just want to relax. Putting this down is the first time I’ve realized that these sounds are connected for me. Wow!

    Pizzelles are something that take me back to my Italian grandmother. She would make them from scratch, and eating them warm from the grill was great. I buy these when I can find them, although the flavor she used isn’t one I can find at the store (anise). I buy vanilla flavored ones, which has become comforting to me. I’ve got something close, so it’s enough. I know I can still remember the taste of hers as well. She’s been gone since 1986, but this is comforting to have a connection to her.

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