Scents and Childhood Memories

The wonder of our sense of smell.... it's amazing how a scent can transport us straight back to childhood



We all know how evocative nice smells can be; freshly baked bread wafting onto the street from the bakery, fresh coffee brewing as you wander into your favourite café; or that first whiff of salty sea air as you arrive at the coast.

But what is fascinating is how powerful these different smells can be in triggering memories, particularly childhood ones.

How can a smell conjure up such powerful emotions?

Smells can bring on a flood of memories, and have the power to alter our moods or even affect our actions.

This is all to do with the olfactory bulb and the brain's limbic system which is very closely linked to memory apparently, but to prevent myself (and you) from glazing over I'm not going to get all technical (I couldn't if I tried!).

Put simply, this part of the 'emotional brain' can almost instantaneously call up memories and responses.

Smells linked to people and events

Apparently, when you first smell something you link it to an event or a person or even how you were feeling at that very moment, therefore, when you next encounter that particular scent, the same memory is triggered.

Because we encounter most new odours in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories, but we actually begin making associations between smell and emotion even before we're born.

Exposure to smells in infancy

Infants who were exposed to alcohol, cigarette smoke or garlic in the womb show a preference for those smells. That explains my love of a good red wine then! To them, the smells that might upset other babies seem normal or even comforting.

It's incredible to think that the scents you sniffed as a baby or child still have such a hold on you in adulthood.

Happy and unhappy memories of scents

The smell of chlorine still gives me a tingle of happiness - the anticipation of jumping into the pool and all the fun that lay ahead. Not so good is the whiff of a stuffy car interior. I had terrible car sickness as a child and just the smell of a car's insides would make me retch, even before my dad had started the engine! To this day I still hate the smell and have to open the windows, particularly if I'm in the back or passenger seat.

Certain perfumes can put me straight back into the company of someone who was wearing them too. My mum used to wear Miss Dior and every time I smell it I'm back on our old sofa, snuggled up reading a book with her! Because it holds such lovely memories for me I've tried wearing it myself - it never works. That scent somehow remains claimed by my mum and firmly attached to those lovely memories.

How smells make kids feel

It's nice to think that our kids are developing these associations now. My son especially always comments on nice smells and how they make him feel. He has auditory sensory impairment which means his other senses can be heightened so for him scent is likely to be even more intensely linked to memory.

Perhaps I should think twice before breathing wine fumes over him in the future. There are some memories that really shouldn't be encouraged to stick!

Jayne, Working Mum and Freelance Editor

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