Making Sense of Memory

May 20, 2021
Reading time: 3 minutes


How can our senses catapult us to the past and connect to our emotions in such sneaky ways?

“… I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.” – In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

That passage from Proust’s 1913 novel has been the subject of more than one college term paper and gave us the term “Proustian Moment” – a sensory experience that floods our minds and heart with memories we thought we had long forgotten or buried on purpose.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a Proustian moment of my own. In Los Angeles for my father’s shiva, my eldest daughter entered the room wearing one of Dad’s old jackets. As I embraced her, old familiar smells filled my nose, a jolt of electricity coursed through me, and tears ran down my face. I was suddenly twelve again, hugging him as he left for work. I was seventeen, falling asleep next to him on the sofa. I was twenty-two, talking about my upcoming wedding and discussing songs for the father-daughter dance. The scent of my father brought forth a kaleidoscope of images I haven’t accessed in ages. I suddenly became curious about the psychological and biological reasoning behind Proustian Moments.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History, in collaboration with the Harvard Brain Science Initiative, hosted a panel discussion titled “Olfaction in Science and Society” in 2020. The consensus among the professors and chairs was that smell and memory seem to be linked closely due to the brain’s anatomy.

As Colleen Walsh wrote, reporting on the event: “Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. ‘The olfactory signals very quickly get to the limbic system,’ Murthy said.”

Of course, any time science realizes how we function on a primal level, someone is trying to make a buck off of it. Colognes and perfumes can immediately snap us back to an old flame. Olfactory branding agencies will often advise hotels and corporate offices to pump their own signature scents through a building’s air ducts to help guests and clients connect on an emotional level with a brand.

Dawn Goldworm, a co-founder of one of those agencies, explains on her website that Nike’s signature scent, for example, was partially inspired by the smell of a rubber basketball sneaker as it scrapes across the court and a soccer cleat in grass and dirt. Her stated goal is to create “immediate and memorable connections between brands and consumers.”

Goldworm says that smell is the only fully-developed sense a fetus has in the womb, and it’s the one that is the most developed in a child until around the age of 10 when sight takes over. Since “smell and emotion are stored as one memory,” said Goldworm, childhood is when you create “the basis for smells you will like and hate for the rest of your life.”

Everything in life has a meaning, a reflective representation of greater and lesser things. Far too often, we walk through the world, undervaluing our experiences and exchanges. When we fail to engage fully, we allow ourselves to not take full responsibility for our actions, and we miss out on so much life has to offer. But if you work to connect the dots, conscious and subconscious, entire worlds will open up to you.

Hence why the old familiar smells of my father’s jacket did such a number on me that day. It was a perfect union of familiarity, the sting of a fresh loss, and a connection to some of the happiest moments of my life with a kind and wonderful man. I have had those moments before. I’ve written about the sound of his briefcase clasps snapping open and shut HERE, but I never thought to read up on the why until now.

As much as faceless corporations try to subtly influence our connection and behavior, there is no substitute for the musty oak beams in your childhood home, the sickly-sweet grease stains in the carport from your first apartment, the citrus shampoo that your ex-girlfriend used, or the tattered leather jacket of a loved one.

RETHINK MOMENT: When’s the last time you spent a day consciously aware of the smells of the world around you? How often do you think a stray smell triggered a memory and you didn’t realize it?

Recommended Posts


  1. Rosalie Rice : May 20, 2021 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you for this article. I have experienced it many times. The smell of a crisp winter night when I met a man I was in loved with. Everytime the smell brings back memories meeting in that cold night and yes, I cry too. I always wish I could stay in that time just a little while to enjoy the feeling of that moment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *