No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
— Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
The above quotation, an excerpt from the English translation of the famous French literary work by Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, highlights how a chance combination of taste, smell and texture can bring back a memory. A madeleine is a small French biscuit or cookie, shaped like a cockle shell. As the narrator dunks his madeleine into his tea and takes a bite, the sensory experience takes him back to his childhood at Combray when on Sunday mornings his aunt used to dip a bit of madeleine into her tea and then share it with him. That combination of smell, taste and texture takes him back in time.
Memory is not just making a conscience effort to remember or learn things. The way in which our brain files away our life experience for future use is far more complex than that. Our brain uses all our senses to create memories, through a process of association and consolidation. Just as a song or piece of music can take us back to a specific time or situation, so can smells, tastes, colours and textures.
These associations can be positive or negative. How many of us associate the smell of boiled cabbage with boarding school dinners or the smell of a particular disinfectant with hospitals? A whiff of your mother’s favourite perfume could take you back to your childhood, the scent of roses might remind you of your grandmother’s garden, the smell of bread baking could cue Sunday breakfasts during holidays – a small clue can bring a whole scene or situation rushing back, as Proust so eloquently describes. There are many Facebook pages that exploit our craving for this kind of nostalgia by posting images of items we may have used in our childhood or old photographs of our home towns.
Our brains build associations around objects, smells, sounds and colours. You may have an antipathy to a specific colour because it reminds you of your school uniform. You may hate the feel of a specific fabric because it reminds you of the dress you wore on a date that went horribly wrong. You may love chintzy upholstery because it reminds you of your childhood home, thus having positive associations.
A Matter of Survival
Our memories are an exciting jigsaw puzzle of all these things. You may be surprised to discover that smell is actually the strongest sense for building memories and making associations. This is because the ‘olfactory bulb’ has a direct connection with both the amygdala and the hippocampus, both parts of the brain essential to the formation of memories. Sight and touch do not connect to these so they are weaker. This may be because our sense of smell was more acute in the early stages of our evolution, when our ancestors had to be able to smell danger coming, long before they could see it. If you are going to outrun a woolly mammoth it certainly helps if you can smell him coming from a mile off!
Nowadays our sense of smell, like so many of our other senses, is blunted by the sensory overload of modern life and we are surrounded by synthetic smells such as air freshener and cleaning products that mask the smells of the real world. This makes our sense of smell less of an early warning system but still a crucial factor in building mental associations and memories.
Helping Dementia Patients
Much has been written about the importance of using music to help dementia patients, tuning into their past and playing their favourite music. Other triggers of association can also be used to stimulate positive memories of the past and improve mood. This is one of the reasons why it is important to keep dementia patients in familiar surroundings and to furnish their rooms with some of their favourite things. As vision dims with age, the sense of smell regains importance. A smell with a positive association can lift the mood and bring some happy hours.
You may have to do some detective work though to find out what has happy associations and what not. Old fashioned smells like furniture polish, beeswax candles, lavender sachets, Marseilles soap, fresh bread, blackboard chalk, oil-based paint, hot dogs, gingerbread, vanilla, sandalwood incense, Chanel No 5 and so on are worth experimenting with, depending on your loved one’s age, generation and background. Pay attention to what they talk about to pick up clues and who knows? You may be able to help a loved one experience a ‘madeleine moment’.
For more information about the connections between smells and memories, read