Smell’s power to evoke memory
Opening the doors to my mother’s wardrobe instantly brings back a flood of childhood memories and unlocks emotions of being a little girl, of being safe and of loving her. One precise memory is as clear as a photograph in my mind: I can feel the woolly texture of the shaggy carpet between my fingers as I sit cross-legged, with my school shoe buckles pressing against my ankles. The perfume clinging to her clothes is called Giorgio Beverly Hills and, after watching Pretty Woman the impressionable young me dreamed of Beverly Hills and being an actress.
When we breathe in odoriferous molecules, the olfactory bulb sends signals through nerves that lead into the brain’s entorhinal cortex, which functions as a hub in a widespread network for memory. The brain then attempts to link up the smell with a memory. Or, when smelling something for the first time, it tries to forge a relationship between the smell and other stimulus or memories, which can be recalled later.
In France, International Flavours and Fragrances is conducting scent therapy in a hospital for young women with anorexia nervosa. The women, who are quite literally scared of food, sit together and smell carefully selected scents that evoke happier times in childhood. One smell in particular was the scent of a madeleine, the little shell-shaped sponge cake with a lemony taste. Because the participant did not have to interact with food and was engaging with a memory, she was more open to the therapy. Smelling a blotter and then describing to the group what the smell is and the memories she had from it, allowed her brain to recall a happier time in her life. It also helped that the scent was of a type of food, to reprogramme the brain with a good association with food.
Smells evoke conditioned responses, a learned response to previous neural stimulus. Imagine a man who is in love with a woman who bakes. With her, he experiences intimate emotions of love and attachment. Later on, they part ways, but every time he walks into a bakery, or smells the preparations of cocoa and flour, feelings of love and even longing may be triggered.
In Cape Town I met a woman who is using her applied theatre and psychodrama training to facilitate art therapy with inmates at Pollsmoor Prison and together we are developing a scent therapy program. But in this case, it’s not about using scent to evoke a happier childhood food memory. Here, scent is part of a platform for prisoners to be able to express themselves through a medium that might evoke memories: a way of exploring trauma, and a gateway to expressing and addressing it.
The time will come when we will not be sending get-well cards, but rather a get-well box of smells crafted to have a restorative effect on the body.