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Sense Memory: The Smell of Smoke

Have you ever been transported by a smell?  Taken to a different time and place via the aroma of a favorite meal or a whiff of fresh-cut grass?  Then you have experienced sense memory*, a wonderful and powerful association forged between your olfactory senses and your hippocampus. 

The idea of involuntary memory has received plenty of treatment in the field of neuroscience, but it first found popularity in the writing of Marcel Proust, who in his semi-autobiographical opus In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past described the experience of being transported to his childhood from the tasting of a madeleine. 

Sense memory has always been an interesting phenomenon for me, because I had experienced it even before I tried to tackle Proust, autobiography, and memory in grad school.  For me, there are a variety of smells that trigger a wave of nostalgia or bring into focus a fuzzy memory.  But by far the strongest is the smell of cigarette smoke.  

Now, the effect is not felt every time I am standing next to a smoker or even when I puff the occasional butt.  In fact, it almost has to happen in a very casual way, a small whiff catching me by surprise as I walk down the street.  It also helps when the weather is that perfect temperature to delicately augment the smell of burnt tobacco. 

When that perfect combination of warm air and exhaled smoke wafts past my nostrils, I immediately think of the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, where I spent many summer weeks as a child.  A myriad of associations flash through me in that one instant.  I can see the lights of the carnival rides, hear the clack of footsteps on the boards and the soft hiss of the ocean.  I am momentarily in the state of being at the shore. 

Wildwood Boardwalk, NJ Copyright L.RobThose initial sensory associations then give way to broader connections, as a whole stack of memories branch off from that primary moment.  I think about specific times at the boardwalk, like when a $20 bill just blew right onto my feet and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world, or holidays at my uncle's house, where he would always light up an after-meal Marlboro, or maybe an afternoon in high school, where friends would sneak a puff in the parking lot before catching their ride. 

This entire process, both the primary sensory reaction as well as the cascading associated memories, amazes me with its power and unpredictability.  On the whole, I consider my memory to be somewhat poor.  Ask me to recite a quote word-for-word or tell you the exact date of a shared experience, and I falter.  But with this type of sensory stimulus, I experience a clarity of memory unlike anything else. 

I have no doubt that the emotional or nostalgic ties to these sensory memories make them more accessible than if I try to concentrate on hard data.  And that's fine by me.  I'd rather be able to feel the delight of a child on vacation than know exactly when that vacation occurred. 

Have you experienced sense memory in a similar way?  What triggered it? 

*Sense memory is also sometimes called affective memory, and is associated with a school of method acting.

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Reader Comments (8)

There is a certain plant smell that reminds me of my childhood. It brings about a vague feeling, though, not something specific. And I don't even know what the plant is. Every once in a while I just smell it

May 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercole

This is interesting, as I was just thinking about this last week in Shanghai. I noticed the air smelled differently, more like back home, than it does in Australia. It was when I first got there and it was chilly out, and it reminded me of fall as a child in NJ. I'm not really sure why.

May 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

This happened just the other day actually! A friend of mine was wearing the same perfume that a different friend used to wear every day in London. It was the most bizaare experience, as soon as I smelt it, it was as though part of my brain stayed in the here and now, at uni, talking to this Australian friend. And the other part of my brain was seeing London, the restaurant where we worked, our apartment, and the general sense of having that English friend around me. Then it passed and I was fully back in the present again and left sort of reeling from the experience. Luckily noone noticed any change in my demeanour while I spaced out on the memories!!

May 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMissLiv

I'm about to break out the nerd...fair warning. You are spot on when it comes to your olfactory senses being the strongest memory conjurers. The reason is because the olfactory nerve is the only cranial nerve that is exposed, or located outside of the head, thus garnering the strongest associations because it is so sensitive. It's the same reason people can have that sense of nostalgia when they eat a certain food. What you are "tasting" is mostly the smell of the food- therefore it has a similar impact in your brain! Pretty cool if you ask me. :) For me, the smell of freshly baked soft pretzels will put be back to the early college trips to S. Philly for late night cheese steak runs. Good times!

p.s. This may be the first time I have ever commented on a person's blog post. You can thank your entry about your friends not using social media for that! :)

May 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Thanks for the comments! I think it's very cool that this may be a more common experience than one would think. The human brain has so many more mysteries to reveal.

May 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

i was born in pakistan and there are times when i notice scents that remind me of home like certain flowers or sometimes after it rains. i haven't been back since i was 12 and when i catch a whiff like that, it's like i'm transported there instantly. i love that feeling but it makes me sad at the same time.

May 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSid Z.

I have to admit, I don't smoke, never have. Can't stand it. Won't date someone who smokes etc. But I definitely have a sense memory for some cigarette, I'm not sure the brand, but when I smell it I am instantly transported back to Italy and my time abroad there. It seems like everybody smoked back then and I didn't like it then, but smelling it now, it almost makes me feel good. Weird right? Kind of amazing though.

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBoomka

On the other side of it, have you read much on memory damage, particularly amygdala damage? The amygdala has a lot to do with emotional memory (e.g. fear response). I just took a class on this stuff and it's fascinating.

Check it out - and I'm sorry for the infinitely long link

May 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA/S

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