The Power of Smell to Stir Up Memories

Scientific studies have shown that smell has unusual power to stir up memories. Most of us can vouch for that fact from our own experience. You smell old books and remember your grandfather’s den. You smell roses and remember the garden of the house you grew up in. And so forth and so on.

The contstruction site near Schlotzsky's, complete with the requisite outhouse.

Today, while getting out my my car in the parking lot of Schlotzsky’s in Kerrville, Texas, I had one of those smell-stirs-up-old-memories experiences. I parked about twenty-five yards away from a construction site. The lumber was particular pungent today because of yesterday’s rains. As soon as I smelled the Douglas Fir 2x4s, I was transported back to the home my family and I lived in when I was young. At about five years of age, we built a family room onto the back of our home. For days, I smelled newly-sawn 2x4s. Today, I remembered watching the workmen and smelling the results of their construction efforts.

What strikes me as particularly odd about my experience in the parking lot of Schlotzsky’s is that I was remembering something I experienced about 47 years ago. Moreover, I don’t think I have thought about this for decades. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I haven’t ever thought of our family’s room addition since it happened. Yet one good whiff of lumber, 47 years and 1300 miles away, and I’m back as a small boy watching the workmen.

I also remembered, by the way, the smell of cheap cigars. At least one of the workers would smoke and then chew on these cigars. So, today I had a smell-sparks-memory-sparks-smell experience.

The mind is an amazing thing, don’t you think?

So, how about you, had any smell-sparks-memory experiences lately?

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  • Susan Spoon

    I think I’ve read that the smell-memory connection sort of bypasses the cognitive processes of the brain–it’s directly linked.  It’s a very weird phenomenon!  And not only do smells bring back what you remember; sometimes they bring back how you were feeling at the time.  Dr. Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia writes about how music has this power, too. 

  • Anonymous

    Susan: Thanks. Yes, music does that too. Good point.

  • Ben Vandagriff

    Some folks seem to have their own definitive writing style, like a particular niche or another. The thing I always seem to enjoy so much in the writings of Dr. Mark D. Roberts, aside from his clarity & obvious religious perspective, is the relevance of his general subject matter. I often seem to trip on his perceptions in what has become a rather familiar &  timely manner.  
    The mind truly is an amazing thing, & I have always found Mark’s perspectives quite enlightening, just as I have since I first met him in 1968, back when we were kids. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Ben. Yes, I remember well sharing a table with you in Mrs. Lammers’ seventh grade art class. Say, I just checked online. Mrs. Lammers died last year. Here’s the link:

  • Ben Vandagriff

    Interesting. She was a nice lady. I have especially fond memories of you in our 6th grade class w/ Mrs. Cast at Glenoaks. That was the year I’d just moved to Glendale from Shadow Hills. I was the new kid in town.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, Mrs. Cast was a fine teacher. Do you remember when she got mad at us for laughing at the word “balls” in class? She really yelled. Said they were called “testicles.” Man, I wanted to hide under my desk.

  • sylvia

    I am leading a class of seniors and writing their memories. Thanks for the blog 

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome.