Evoking Memories – A Writers Must

I spoke a little about evoking memories recently in my post: 5 Reasons Why Writers Should Be Secret Agents. But I wanted to delve a little deeper into the science behind how senses and in particular smell can evoke memories, why it can be so powerful and more importantly, why writers need to exploit the use of smell in their work.

Do you have a smell, or ‘thing’ that makes you recall an incident or memory vividly? If so what is it? Let me know in the comments. Is it a sound? Or smell? Or maybe the feel of a certain fabric?

One too many tequilas?

Sacha’s had one too many tequilas at uni!

I tend to have certain songs that remind me of people or times in my life, a few particularly from uni, like Mr Brightside. Every time I would hear that song in a club at uni, I would drunk dial my bezzie mate (if she wasn’t with me) and slur at the top of my voice down the phone vaguely in time to the lyrics. It was like a love note to my buddy. Now when I hear the song, it reminds me of sweaty dancing, dingy union club nights and a lot of happy times.

401141_10150678146097079_1851214557_nI also get the same thing with smells. They seem to evoke the strongest sense of memory. Nag Champa incense sticks for example, fling me back to Nepal and my days trekking in the Himalayas. How wonderful that things can do this to us, but how? And how can we transfer that into our writing?

Smell is so important – think about when you get a cold. You can’t taste a damn thing can you? Well – that’s because taste and smell – although separate senses, are intricately linked, but you can read about that here. And what of the perfume industry? It has always been a wonder to me that girls buy girls perfume and boys buy boy perfume. Personally I love the smell of boys perfume – it was designed for women to love it, to find it attractive. SO WHY DON’T GIRLS WEAR IT? If it was designed for us to love it seems bonkers we don’t wear it. Can you tell this annoys me? I always wear boys perfume in protest!

Photo taken from google. SB assumes the owner is as labelled on the image.

Photo taken from google. SB assumes the owner is as labelled on the image.

The parts of the brain most commonly associated with memory are the amygdala in the temporal lobe and the hippocampus. Smells are processed by the olfactory bulbs – which start in the nose and run under the brain, close to the hippocampus and the amygdala which controls memory.

However,  sight, sound and touch sensory information don’t run near these parts of the brain which is why smell more than any other part of the brain is so closely linked to memory. Smell and memory perception centres in the brain cross over and get caught in each others paths. Giving us this wonderful opportunity as a writer to exploit its benefits.

Plenty of scientific articles demonstrate using fMRI scanning that the brain displays more activity when intense memories are evoked through smell. Unfortunately for us writers, studies also show that the brain is more active when actually smelling the aroma rather than reading the word(1).

That being said, I also know, having read a lot of psychology science papers at uni that, when a person reads the word associated to a smell, the same areas of the brain are lit up on the scanners – meaning their brains are having similar experiences as if they were actually smelling it for real, albeit less intensely.

So what does this mean as writers?

I was chatting to Jane a while back, about how smell is always the forgotten sense. But actually it gives so much depth to a piece of writing, some authors are able to capture smell so vividly you can actually taste the air, or feel your stomach gurgle as a juicy piece of cake is laid on the table for a characters birthday. My point is, I often neglect other senses on a first draft, and actually you don’t need reams of aromatic description, the odd well placed sentence is more than enough.

A couple of examples for you:

The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.” ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“He wraps his arms around me and holds me tight for a few seconds. His breaths tickle my ear, and I close my eyes, letting myself finally relax. He smells like wind and sweat and soap, like Tobias and like safety.”  ― Veronica Roth, Allegiant

How have you used smell in your work? Or do you have a certain smell or sound that evokes a memory for you? Let me know in the comments. 

Here’s one more random question, I couldn’t decide which photo to use as my blog post cover. Which do you prefer – the one at the top, or this one, and why?


(1) Arshamian A, Iannilli E, Gerber JC, Willander J, Persson J, Seo H-S, Hummel T, & Larsson M. The functional neuroanatomy of odor evoked autobiographical memories cued by odors and words. Neuropsychologia 51 (2013), 123-131.

If you liked this post, why not get even more awesome writing tips in the book 13 Steps To Evil – How to Craft Superbad VillainsClick this link and just tap the logo of your device or regular bookshop and it will take you to the right page. You can also get a FREE villains cheatsheet and a villain’s short course by joining my mailing list just click here.

Read Keepers, the first book in my Young Adult fantasy series nowOr to hear more about the release of the sequels as well as get regular CogMail updates you can do so here.

You can also find me on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterestGoodreads


    1. Paha! Yeah I so many bad memories too! *shudder* there was a sauce when I was pregnant…. I had morning sickness… I need to stop because even the thought still makes me gag

    2. Fenjal bath products evoke good memories in my case…I used them all the way through my first pregnancy. I don’t use them so often now, only when my kids (who know I like them) buy them for me at Christmas time or on my birthday.

  1. This is a from a short story I wrote about a dementia patient in a care home:
    ‘Closing her eyes, she discerns the faint scent of lily of the valley, with hints of Coty powder and… freshly-picked mint? It’s familiar, a welcome mask to the undertone of urine.’

      1. It is just like that! Every time I visit I have to try to ignore the pee but it just won’t budge! Mind you, when I was a very small child and we visited my great grandmother at Tooting Bec, which was an imposing Victorian ‘hospital’, it wasn’t so much the strange people that frightened me but the smell.

    1. Thanks for letting me know Rosie – I’m embarking on a slight style change to be more in line with the first picture and I wondered if it was the right thing to do. Although the second picture was probably more relevant I think the style of the first is more professional. Thanks for your comment ??

  2. Hi Sacha, great post. Woodsmoke is a vivid smell for me, a particular type of Woodsmoke and I have no idea what type of wood it is sadly, but when I smell it it transports me right back to my childhood, before the age of 5, when my family travelled halfway around the world in a landrover (my parents were wandering hippies!?), and it brings me an enormous sense of well being.

      1. haha! My parents were wandering hippy types. We’ll have to do an exchange, I still havent heard your background yet. I think it might take all night and several bottles of rosé and prossecco! LOL!

  3. Not so much smell for me. It’s mostly music. Sometimes a certain tune will remind me of something else. This just happened to me the other day, but of course I can’t remember it…

    But ten years ago my aunt suddenly passed away two days after my birthday. For my birthday I got the new Aly & AJ CD. We were always going to their house to visit my Uncle because he was now a single father with two 1-and 3-year-old daughters. So on the way to and from their house (about a half hour ride) I always listened to the CD (on my walkman… do those even exist anymore?). Whenever I hear a song by them I’m always brought back to the car ride and my 12-year-old self.

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Interesting. I get it too with music but smells seem to evoke more richness to the memories for me.

      gosh, must be a bittersweet memory for you, love to have supported your uncle, but the sadness of loss. Thank you for sharing such a personal anecdote.

      1. I don’t think I have a strong sense of smell anyway, lol.
        And of course. It is bittersweet, but it’s part of what made me who I am today. I basically became an older sister over night.

  4. The first cover has a magic and inspirational touch, Sacha.
    The smell of excellent coffee always makes me drool; there is usual someone in my stories with the same (olfactory) addiction.
    Hinting at smells is vital for a story – evoking memories in the readers keeps them hooked.
    Another memory: Mashed bananas, vanilla and a little egg nog and cream – great teenage stuff…

  5. Yes, I try to think of the senses at all times when I am writing. Sounds, smells, colors, tastes, anything that I can bring into the story to make it more palpable, more real.
    Music is a big one for me. I use it very intentionally when writing too.

    1. Lots of people saying the same Allie, that they are more oriented to sound. Interesting that, I’d not thought of sound being stronger than smell. Sound does the same for me, but I feel like smell evokes stronger memories… hmmmm

  6. This was so great! I’ve deleted several morning blog notifications that I follow because I just don’t have the time to read them all. But I had to read this! And… YES YES YES! LIke a rubberband! Smells and songs snap me back. Too funny, I’ve noticed a few of my favorite authors are always and continuously referring to… His or her scent, almost too much, but it works!
    I bet you get a lot of comments on this. It really hit the mark.

    1. Well I’m honoured this post made the cut 🙂 Thank you for reading. I also don’t have time to read everything I would like to 🙁

      oooh smell of a rubber band…. takes me back to my first job after uni! I have no idea why. But agree about the scent of a character – especially when its something your familiar with.

  7. By the way, I like the bottom picture. Maybe because of laps I’ve sat on or the ones who’ve sat on mine. Memories are our best tool. As writers we draw from a library of our own experiences. A few years ago an ex love reconnected with me (of course I wrote about it – smile) but the songs he produced swept me back so fast it was scary!!

  8. Fascinating post, as usual!! I am leaning towards the picture below. It just brings me back more than fading roses.
    Smell is definitely crucial to my story. I use it to set the scene especially given how important the ocean is for my plot. The saltiness, the fishing nets, damp wood, I find them so helpful but maybe because they come from my own memories. 🙂

    1. Thanks seems to be a bit of a mixed bag but leaning towards the bottom one. Ah and see – that’s where real research is needed for books too – that knowing sense that you can bury in your stories to give the depth u need for credibility.

    1. Do you know… I cannot stand the smell of bacon it makes me feel sick. It was the only thing I couldn’t handle at uni!! my housemates would cook it when they were hung over and it made me want to die!

  9. I thought I was the only one who thought that about perfumes. I love some men’s cologne and sometimes wear them.
    There are some scents that trigger my memory, especially scents related to food, but music tends to cause stronger triggers. Sometimes I’ll hear a song and it will trigger such a strong memory that it’ll throw me into the mood I was in when experiencing the events in the memory.

    1. haha, glad to hear I’m no alone in wearing boys smells. Lots of people agree with you here on the sound triggering memories. I guess its the same for most senses really but uniquely to each person in how they experience memories and which sense does that strongest – thanks for the comment.

  10. I’m with you on the smell thing Sach. I have an exceptionally sensitive nose when it comes to smell. I will often find myself somewhere smelling something that takes me back in time. Many times it’s a perfume or cologne that takes me back to the past. I also have some psychic abilities, I’m sensitive to spirits. I have an aunt and my dad who’ve passed who occasionally come by ‘to visit’. I always know when they’re near by my aunt’s perfume waft passing me by in the midst of nowhere, and the same with my home filling with the scent of cigarette smoke from my dad. Ironically nobody else in the room can smell it. 🙂

    1. Yeah, and my nose only got more sensitive after I had my son too. Smells during pregnancy was horrendous.

      No way? I did not know that about you. Thats crazy that you can smell them and so bizarre that no one else can smell it. Eek, must be magical to know they are close by and want you to know about it. Must be a real sense of love.

    1. But thats my point!! Mens scents are created for women to like… so if we like them so much why don’t more women wear them?! lol. I know what your saying about the attraction thing. Maybe Im being self centred? I just think when they smell so good why wouldn’t I want that smell on me so I can smell it all day?! haha

  11. Having worked as a nurse in a large hospital there are many surgical smells that bring back memories of patients. I always wear the same cologne, YSL pour homme, I’ve been told it suits my personality perfectly. I like the smell of vanilla, coffee and a very good Shiraz. Smells must be one of the most evocative of the senses.

    1. I completely agree, smells really are the most evocative. There are a number I love. I like a new perfume though! every time I go to the airport I buy a new one! hehe. A guilty indulgence. I work in and around hospitals and theres certainly a smell. Not sure I like it though.

  12. Great research, Sacha. I was just telling someone that my favorite part of Thanksgiving is the smell of the turkey in the oven. It lumps every single Thanksgiving together in my head. I like using smells in my writing. The quotes you gave are great because the imagery is so unusual. Wonderful.

    1. Thanks so much 😀

      ooh, I know what you mean – although I’d have to say it about a christmas dinner, although as a veggie is doesn’t quite fill me with the same sense of food like comfort but more the joy and emotion of the day. But I know what you mean and Im with you 🙂

      Hope your NaNo is going well. Mine is so behind. only managed 10.5K so far. sigh.

  13. Yes! I try to use all the senses but smell…that’s a biggie. As some have commented, music can take you back to a specific time pretty easily but scents are extremely powerful. And we should give them some love in our writing. Absolutely. I knew a bit about the science only because I’m completely enamored with essential oils. The olfactory sense is an amazing thing. Fab post. Again.

    Sorry to be a party pooper but I like the second photo. Love the first one, but the second one reminds me of you. THE. Sacha. Black. When I see it, I think, “Oh, Sacha has a new post up”. The first one…not so much. But I do like it.

    1. It’s odd, I hadn’t really considered sound or music so much when I wrote this, but its fair cop. It does the same.

      I’ve been thinking as I replied to these comments about what sound does for me, and I think sound generally evokes a more event specific thing or person. So for example, Greyhound by swedish house mafia reminds me of a massive holiday with a group of friends. A particular sound of chipping / sculpting rocks reminds me of walking past a particular house in Nepal.

      but smells, are broader. They will remind me of a time period – or a place, they seem larger in their power?

      Ahhh I should have come to you for the science!

      Haha, its the font. damnit. I have a thing at the minute for putting a bar across a photo and using that new font – as you will see over the next month. but maybe I can reign it in a bit once all my scheduled posts have gone live. 🙂

      1. It’s a valid choice. And a nice one at that. I’ll get used to it then I’ll be saying, “Ooh! Sacha has a new post up.” And all will be well. 😉 Interesting about the sound and smell. I’ll have to think on that. But this post is spot-on because writers tend to leave out the sense of smell. They use sound all the time.

  14. I was just talking about memory triggers with hubs yesterday, specifically song lyrics. Certain lyrics can take me right back into a moment, remembering every single detail.

  15. Oh my god, I hate the smell of cinnamon. It just reminds me that I was a dumb kid. Once I tried to colour my hair with a natural product , so I read that cinnamon is good. Big mistake!
    My hair smelled 3 damn weeks like it. I washed my hair a million times , but the smell was too strong.(It followed me even when I slept). It didn’t helped that my family just laughed at me.
    Since then cinnamon is a total no-go for me, whether food or the smell.

  16. SMELL is my VERY favorite sense – if you are really interested in the sense of smell, I highly suggest reading Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz. It is FASCINATING and an easy read.
    I love the smell of toast/baking bread….I love the smell of wax crayons because it takes me back to my childhood…I love the smell of rain & fresh cut grass & grilling — all summer smells.

    1. Hey Shellie, thanks for stopping by and reading. I will have to check that book out, thanks for the recommendation :). Bread baking is a delicious smell 😀 Wax crayons…. haven’t heard of that one before! Its a unique smell too lol. But rain is one of my faves. Thanks again for reading.

Leave a Reply