Smell, Memory, and Dill
Odor, oftener than any other sense impression, delivers a memory to consciousness little impaired by lapse of time, stripped of irrelevancies of the moment or of the intervening years, apparently alive and all but convincing."
Roy Bedichek, The Sense of Smell
Every time I open a package of fresh dill I am transported to my grandma’s kitchen. I am 10 years old. It’s blazing hot out in the middle of a Texas summer, and my small hands are stuffing green cucumbers from my grandma’s garden into mason jars. Making pickles was one of my treasured memories with my grandma. And it’s one of the reasons I buy so much dill today.
We all started as small babies entirely dependent on our sense of smell, long before our eyes fully developed. Smell is the most advanced sense that babies have at birth. Studies show that after as few as two week of life on the planet, babies are able to detect their mother’s breast milk over a stranger’s.
We see the importance of scent to the human species in the study of evolution. The earliest humans had an evolutionary advantage if they had a keen sense of smell that enabled them to hunt at night. Indeed, the humans with the best sense of smell tended to have larger brains as a result.
So smell is an influential factor in being human, but what’s with the emotional connections to smells? Scents seem to be more linked to memory than seeing a picture or even hearing a voice. This is because the nose sits squarely in the front of the head and a breath away from the brain’s memory nucleus. So as soon as you take a whiff of a new smell, your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. Bada bing.
As important as our sense of smell is, it loses power over time if it isn’t practiced. We tend to neglect our poor nose, searching for visual beauty in art and furniture, seeking out music to add to our collection, or trying out new restaurants to entice our tastebuds.
But why not stimulate your neglected nose? Buy some flowers. Burn some incense. Apply some scented oil to your skin. Breathe in and awaken your nose to one of life’s great pleasures, evoking memories through smell.
- Julia Kahlig-Garuba