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?
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.
I 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!
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,
“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,
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.
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