scent and memory

Perhaps more than any of our other senses, it is our sense of smell that is most linked with memories and emotions. Baking bread, roasted coffee beans, cut grass, floral scents, wet earth; a surprise encounter with an aroma or fragrance can elicit powerful, often long-forgotten memories. This is largely because the places in the brain where olfactory stimuli are processed (the amygdala and hippocampus) are the same places that process and form emotion and memory. This means that scent, memory and emotion are often interlinked in our experiences. 

One of the ​most famous literary explorations of this phenomena is Marcel Proust's description of his experience of little cakes or 'petites madeleines.' 

     "And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine." -- Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

We can also see the link between scent, memory and emotion in poetry. For instance, Ofelia Zepeda's poem, 'Smoke in Our Hair,' explores how different types of burning wood produce different scents that in turn provoke different memories. 

For this exercise, it may be useful to keep a log throughout the day of all the scents and fragrances you encounter, both good and bad, jotting down the memories and emotions they evoke for you. Whether it's the smell of your toast burning in the morning, the faint scent of rain and mud on your daily walk, the delicate scent of fresh-washed laundry, a dusty old book, a neighbour's barbecue, or a family member's cologne, spend a minute or two making a note of the memories and emotions these aromas call up to the surface of your consciousness. 

Once you have had time to make some notes, use your notes to compose a poem or prose piece that explores your own, personal connections between scent, memory and emotion. Perhaps your poem or prose piece will explore just one, very vivid scent experience in extraordinary depth and detail, like Proust's encounter with the 'petites madeleines.' Or perhaps you will explore a range of different fragrances and the memories they summon. Either way, remember that this is a highly personal exercise, so feel free to deeply explore whatever has significant meaning for you. 

If you'd like to share the results of this writing exercise on our site, email your writing to e.j.perry@kent.ac.uk