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Entries in Memory (1)


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.