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Friday, April 24, 2009

The power of smell

It's funny how certain smells instantly bring back memories. I can recognize my mom's perfume anywhere, even thousands of miles away, and immediately think of her.

Sometimes it's not a specific memory but the idea of a place. Wood-burning fires always remind me of autumn at home, even though we haven't lived in a house with a wood fireplace in almost a decade. Maybe it's less my home I'm thinking of and more the smell of other peoples' fires burning in the crisp fall air. Mix in some crunchy red leaves and it's a perfect fall day.

Autumn: scarves, crunchy leaves and crisp air.

Today, my memory center was instantly triggered by a mixture of the aforemented wood-burning fire and the clean scent of rain.

Ah, rain. Brings me back to living in London and seeing rain nearly daily -- usually not more than a brief shower but enough to compel me to carry an umbrella every day. The entire city smelled clean and fresh after a rainstorm.

Just after a rainstorm in London -- view from my flat.

Storms turned the sky a gorgeous shade of purpley-gray.

There actually is a scientific explanation behind smells triggering memory:

Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it's sometimes called the "emotional brain," smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

So far, the smells I associate with Korea are a mixed bag. There's one specific street food so rank, I'll hold my breath to walk past the cart. It might be delicious but I'll never know. And there's the odor of kids' feet when they take their shoes off during class. (Why do they do this?! What makes a student think that because they are sitting down in Talk Show for 45 minutes, they need to remove their shoes?!)

But then there's the cinnamony smell of ho dduk and the scent of ginseng wafting out of pharmacies. Those are pleasant.

What about you? What do you smell and instantly associate with your past?


  1. The power of smell.... I can totally relate! Smells conjure up so many memories... some hazy and some more specific. I love smelling very random and sometimes unidentifiable scents that bring back childhood memories!

  2. Smells: quince tree blooms mean Spain. Daffodils, Scotland. The mix of wet dirt and wet road tar (from rain), Kansas, there's a certain smell on the wind that holds Colorado, smoke from a cast-iron woodstove, mixed with a certain water smell means Grandma Reed... and the list goes on. :) I gratefully realize I hold many more positive smell associations than negative. Unfortunately open sewage + stale water and kimche + garlic + alcohol sweat mean Korea. Oi.

  3. We did a few stories on it a while back! Did you know you can't smell things that are frozen? When you walk into an ice cream parlor, you smell the cones and the toppings, but you don't smell the ice cream!

    For me, the smell of cashmere triggers my mother, and since I get a lot of her hand-me-down cashmere sweaters, I think of her regularly. I have thousands of others.