“A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”
“Wake up and smell the coffee.”
“Something smells fishy.”
We might not realize it, but we spend a lot of time thinking about our sense of smell. We sniff things out when there’s a mystery to be solved. After an arduous ordeal, we hope to come out smelling like roses. And when there’s a traitor in our midst, we smell a rat.
Scents have a strange way of controlling our emotions. We all know certain smells, for example, that are instantly comforting, or that have strong memories attached to them.
For me, the smell of wood finish is strangely pleasant. It’s not something, of course, that I’d want to sniff all day, but a whiff of it when walking by some unfinished project instantly brings back memories.
The reason, I’m sure, is because my dad has installed hardwood floors for nearly my whole life. When I smell wood finish, I think of my dad walking through the door after a day’s work.
Another strangely homey smell for me is hand sanitizer – and I’m not talking about the ones that smell like papayas or coconuts. No, it’s the kind that smells like rubbing alcohol that always reminds me of my grandmother.
In the years before my grandma passed away, we would have to use hand sanitizer regularly when we visited her. She had a big bottle of it next to her bed. Nowadays, every time that strong disinfectant smell hits me, I remember walking into my grandma’s room, holding out my hands, and happily saying, “I need some hand-cleanser-rizer-reener.” (I don’t know where I came up with that, but I said it nearly every time I visited my grandma.)
Of course, I have some reminiscent smells that are more normal: cookies baking remind me of my mom; the smell of melted chocolate reminds me of Christmastime; a freshly mown lawn reminds me of every game of hide-and-seek when I was a kid.
But isn’t it amazing the things that we cling to throughout our lives? There are, I’m sure, a million smells that I could have associated with fond memories of my grandma and my dad. My dad and I used to make walnut bread together – why isn’t bread baking the smell that I associate with him? And my grandma used to make the best fried potatoes. Wouldn’t that make more sense that hand sanitizer?
Perhaps those smells are the ones I remember the most because they are the ones that were the most every day – they were the ones that held happy memories again and again and again.
As a kid, I was always so thrilled when my dad would come home from work. That meant he could play with me, or, as I got older, that we could talk or listen to some of his old albums.
And hand sanitizer was what I would use each time I saw my grandma – all those many days and countless hours when we would chat and I would read her Harry Potter books.
The link between smell and memory is something that is so strong, and so much a part of life, that it is often taken for granted. An NBC News report in 2012 described the biological link between the two.
The report explains that, once a smell enters the nose, it travels to the olfactory bulb. And the olfactory bulb is a part of the body’s limbic system, which is the brain’s emotional center. As such, there is easy communication and access between the olfactory bulb and the amygdala – the part of the brain that (surprise, surprise) affects emotional memories.
It’s little wonder then that scent-related products (such as deodorants, perfumes, air fresheners, mouthwash, etc.) do so well. Deep down, we all know that when it comes to first impressions, smells will be one of the first things noticed and one of the hardest things to forget.
For more proof, look at any favorite story: authors strive to paint pictures in a reader’s mind, but more often than not what truly makes a tale come alive is the moment the reader can smell the scene.
As an example, take this passage from “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: “The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, after reading that, can almost smell that strange odor Gaiman just described.
After all, scent is just one of the many ways we make sense of the world around us. It’s how we make connections to the past and with each other. It’s a simple thing, of course, but oftentimes the simplest things are those which mean the most – like wood finish and freshly baked cookies.
Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-402-2571 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.