d2h.net: flotsam, jetsam, & lagan

thoughts, observations, diary, rants, stuff the virtual cat dragged in…

smells & memory

the other day @jmdhh and i were out shopping. while i was waiting at one of the shops i was “hit” by a smell of coffee — and immediately taken back to the apartment of my grandmother in the late 60s, early 70s. she lived in bremerhaven, one of the german sea ports, and had a penchant for coffee.

her apartment always smelled of coffee in a certain way — the smell of coffee emanating from that shop at which i was waiting for @jmdhh must have hit my olfactory memory at just the right spot and triggered that flashback to my childhood. all of a sudden i could remember how her apartment looked liked, the milk bar she sometimes would take me to for late lunches (milk rice with fruits and cinnamon!), the trips to look at — from my child’s perspective certainly — gigantic vessels moored at the columbuskaje, one of the oversea’s ports of bremerhaven. the visits to wremen where i played as a little kid on the beach and even remember taking a dip in the river weser — probably unheard of today. or, the visits to one of her friends who lived in a high rise close to one of the ship yards in bremerhaven, whose apartment had panoramic windows looking out across the north of bremerhaven and in particular over the ship yard. i also remember that there was a huge toy store in the bürgermeister-smidt-straße (huge, from my perspective as a little boy, that is) — which was a great place to be, certainly in the time before christmas :-)

it’s interesting, how smells can cause an immediate memory flashback. i’ve googled for “smell memory” to find out more about it. jonah lehrer quotes in his post smell and memory the french author marcel proust

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. — [marcel proust: swann’s way, translated by c. k. scott moncrief]

— and goes on to explain that

[…] the olfactory cortex has a direct neural link to the hippocampus. in contrast, all of our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed somewhere else – they go to the thalamus – and only then make their way to our memory center.

so smell (and taste, really, since it’s connected to our smell sensors as you’ll find out once you have a severe cold) enjoys a direct link into our hippocampus which seems to play a, if not the, major role in what we consider to be our memory. the only other sensory input i can think of which seems to have some kind of unfiltered access to our brain and emotions is music.

interesting stuff.