The Smell of Memories
I had a significant experience recently. I was out walking my dog, minding my own business, when suddenly a scent wafted across the morning breeze. Just as suddenly as the fragrance tickled my nose, I was transported back in time. It was a sudden thing, catching me off guard. I stood, momentarily frozen on the sidewalk.
There I was standing on the sidewalk, holding my dog’s leash in one hand and my cup of coffee in the other. I started shaking my head as if to clear the thoughts while I held onto those items. I brought myself back to the present by focusing on the texture of the leash and the cup. Once my head was clear, I started walking home.
As I walked, I thought about what had just happened. What the heck was that? And what caused it? Recalling, it was the scent of lilac that had jarringly transported me back in time. Even though I walked on from the initial spot that had caused my memory to jump to the past, I could still smell lilac, ever so slightly.
Recalling the Past
Where did that lilac scent take me? Back to when I was a kid. It was summertime where I grew up—sitting in one of my favorite spots, the center of a lilac bush. It was more tree-like than bush-like; after years of growth with no one trimming it back to shape it, it was huge and a bit out of control. That out of control growth created a space in the center that was perfect for sitting and reading or writing.
I was partially hidden from the outside world, sitting there in the center of the tree. Tucked within those branches, the sweet smell of lilac surrounded me, and it made me feel safe. I was content to be there, just me and my thoughts. Even at that young age, I liked being by myself. It is no surprise that the slight scent of lilac would transport me back to those days.
Unfortunately, not all of the memories were ones that I wanted back. There were others, much darker than I would instead not remember, and now that I have, I would like to forget. And it all has to do with the scent of lilac. Those muggy summer nights, the soft breeze was wafting through the open windows, bringing the essence of lilac and reminding me of where I went when I needed to be lost.
A Moment in Time
I wrote the following poem many, many years ago. I think it would have been the early nineties. I had not thought of my writing back then as anything other than something that I did to express myself. I certainly never read much into it, although I did try to get my poems published.
It was interesting that I thought of it as I was thinking back on the scent of lilac and the memories that the aroma brought up. I had not thought of the fragrance of lilac in a long time and certainly did not link it to anything in particular until that day. And then to find my writing from that time. I began to realize that the scent of lilac had made some impression on me all of those years ago. It could not be a coincidence.
Twisted branches breaking the sky,
Slender, jagged fingers grasping for the sun.
Fragrant lilac caresses, calms the breath
hidden within darkened branches
imaginings of wandering.
Ever restless, leaves the world behind.
Ever memorialized gray, swirling clouds, pushes out the imagined,
A dark cloud of memories replaces the imagined,
Shadowy reality breaks through,
Ever-present pain as
anger flares under the moonlight sky
Envelopes and extinguishes innocence
as darkness forges ahead.
Forgiveness, never forgotten.
Making Scents of Memories
Odors can become associated with and then trigger vivid memories. It is called the Proust Effect. Scientists do not yet understand precisely how a smell would become associated with an event. How does a fragrance become related to the memory of an event? Well, scientists think that memory fragments, called engrams, are distributed throughout the brain. Those engrams can be either biophysically or biochemically or a combination of both.1
The theory is engrams are created at an individual synapse – the synaptic gap between neurons used for communication. There are long tendril-like parts of the neuron called dendrites that have multiple synapses within them. The dendrites receive incoming neurotransmitters and determine the extent to which the neuron reacts to those signals coming into the neuron.1
The strength of those signals also could determine if that signal becomes a memory. Scientists aren’t too sure how that happens exactly, at least from what I read. For the engrams to become associated with each other, two things would need to occur. The first is that the signals would need to come into the dendrite within a short time of each other. The second is the weaker signal piggybacks onto, the stronger signal. And those two engrams will be associated in our brains, and therefore in our consciousness.1
To think that on that day, walking my dog, the scent of lilac, and all of that happened. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. The timing had to have been just right way back when to associated lilac with anything traumatic, and yet it did. The scent of lilac must have been the weaker of the two engrams because of how innocuous it was to me then.
It could have been that lilac calmed me so long ago, and I took shelter in that scent. I would use that during times of duress, which would then become associated in my brain. Although wouldn’t I have remembered that or had a flashback before that day? I wonder what other memories were connected to fragrances? I must admit, I am a bit intrigued to see what may happen next time a scent tickles my nose.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2011, January 13). Neuroscientists explain ‘Proustian effect’ of small details attached to big memories. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 3, 2020 from sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110113131626.htm