Scent of Memory
Christmas present is made all the sweeter to mind and heart as our sense of smell helps us recall and savor memories of Christmas past.
Christmas morning. The balsam scent of evergreen boughs fills the air as the kids tear open a new Game Boy powered by the chemistry of tiny batteries. The aromas of gingerbread and cinnamon waft in the background as a teenager plans to try out a new snowboard constructed of advanced fibers made by chemists. Adults sniffing hopefully for a breakfast of coffee and stolen as future scientists investigate a long-awaited chemistry set. Although chemistry may have contributed to many of the items on our wish lists, the celebration of Christmas especially resides in the aromas and scents of the holiday and in how those scents invoke our memories
When the nose detects an aroma, the information is passed along to the limbic system of the brain, which includes such structures as the hippocampus and the amygdala. The limbic system not only supports the sense of smell, but it is also responsible for emotion and long term memory, thus creating strong links among these functions. Sights and sounds may invoke memories from any point in a person’s life, but scents frequently trigger strong emotional memories of childhood. In the limbic system, aromas form the strongest associations the first time they are encountered rather than being replaced by later connections. Given that children experience so many smells for the first time, it is these memories that are invoked, consciously and sometimes unconsciously, when a scent is experienced years later. Many adults find that the scent of a particular perfume or cologne summons the memory of a loved one or a special moment from times gone by.
Thus, it is that our brains are particularly adapted to associate the emotions and connections of this holiday with the aromas and memories of Christmases past. So, let the scents of frankincense and myrrh, of evergreen and mistletoe, of snow, of poppy seed milk, of fruitcake, of pomander balls made with oranges and cloves, of peppermint, and of cookies baking – whatever smells you associate with Christmas – bring you happy memories on this special day.
Two discussions of the connection between scent and memory may be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/05/science/05angier.html and http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2809%2901857-0