22nd October 2017 / Gabriela Czwarnos
Whenever I pass a man on the street who is wearing the 90s classic, CK Obsession aftershave, my mind flashes back to my very first boyfriend. A whiff of freshly baked doughnuts and I am instantly transported to my grandma’s flat, where we used to eat warm, rose jam doughnuts on Sundays. Everyone has certain scents that take them back in time, proving there’s a strong connection between smells, emotions, and memories.
For some reason, smells can trigger memories faster than words, pictures or even sounds. Dr Becky Spelman, a psychologist at Private Therapy Clinic says, “as babies, we come into this world with blurry vision, poor coordination, and an inability to interpret the sounds we hear around us. We are guided to our mother’s breast through the sense of smell, which is perhaps the most fundamental of all our senses. As we grow and develop we learn how to speak, listen and gain an understanding of the world through touch, sight, and hearing. Our sense of smell seems to become less important, and yet, smell more than anything can evoke a memory and a strong emotional response as it’s linked to our instincts and the days when we relied on our mothers for everything”.
According to scientists, smells go into the emotional and memory part of the brain, whilst words go into thinking part. This could explain why memories brought back by smells feel nostalgic rather than specific and detailed.
Dr Spelman adds, “our memories tend to hook highly emotional moments onto smells which can trigger all of those feelings whenever they are encountered. These strong experiences will meld with their associated scents, and every time you encounter those scents, you will be assailed with memories”.
What smells trigger memories the most?
So how can we trigger the greatest memories from the past? Is there just one unique fragrance or smell? Nick Gilbert, fragrance expert at Olfiction says, “every single person is different, with their own scent associations based on their own experiences and memories. So it’s not that any particular notes tend to be more impactful to the majority of us”.
However, there are smells that most of us will associate with our happy childhood. Erica Moore, fragrance evaluator at Fragrances Of The World explains, “certainly, we can generalise that the smell of vanilla, for example, which is most commonly associated with baking, cooking and sweet food such as chocolate will provide positive scent memories. Cut grass, coffee, fairy floss (or sugar) and wood-smoke are also notes that rate highly as preferred scents. Perfumers and marketers often weave these notes into fragrances to appeal to happy childhood”.
Lots of us have strong relationships with older, classic fragrances just because our parents or grandparents wore them. “Children from the 60’s may recall their parents smelling like patchouli, 70s children may have a similar experience with fragrances such as Charlie and 80s children will no doubt smell Opium or Lou Lou from the next suburb”, says Moore.
There is no doubt, smell associations are really powerful. “When I used to sell perfume, a lady came into the store and sprayed Youth Dew onto a card and almost instantly burst into tears. I just gave her a big hug and let her cry, and eventually, she told me her mother used to wear it and she had died a few weeks ago” says Nick.