Reflections: The smell of memories and emotions

A beach plot at the coastline in Mombasa
A beach plot at the coastline in Mombasa

Forget sight, forget hearing and touch. It’s smell that does it for me, taking me to places and down memory lane like none of my other sense can.

This realisation that my nose is the closest thing I have to a time travel teleportation device became apparent to me when I was at the coast in late November. This was the second time in a year I was down there for a holiday. When it happened the first time, I thought it was an aberration, but then it hit me again in November: the smell.

I know, it sounds bad, but I mean it in a good way.

I’m talking about that scent in the air at the coast of warm, damp salt laced with a tinge of moss, algae and decaying seaweed. Occasionally, a whiff of fresh saltwater fish will blow in your direction. It is a combination of smells that unexpectedly took me back to when I was between the ages of six and 10, when we lived in Mombasa. That coast smell brought back memories of a childhood I had completely forgotten, and emotions of pure joy came flooding in, reminding me I was a happy kid.

This whole smell-emotional experience had me worried for a second. What was happening here? Was I going through some sort of breakdown or something?

Turns out I’m not bonkers. It’s not unusual. All noses have the ability to trigger memories and emotions that bring a tear — of joy or of sorrow — to the eye.

Brain anatomy, scientists believe, may explain why smells conjure up vivid memories and strong emotions. Unlike the other senses, smell is unique in that it enters directly deep into the brain by way of the olfactory bulb.

The olfactory bulb starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain and has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory; the amygdala and hippocampus. Visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. Their journeys start at the organs, the eyes, ears and limbs, and travel to a relay station called the thalamus before passing on to the rest of the brain. Simply put, these senses take the stopovers and connecting flights route around the brain. Smell, on the other hand, is a direct flight to the site of processing.

Before sight, hearing, or touch, creatures (that includes us) evolved to respond to chemicals in the air and water around them. In other words, they evolved to smell, making smell the oldest known sense.

I never did give much thought to my nose and smell before my recent trips to the coast, but now that I think about it, I probably should have seen how important a role smells and noses play in the human experience. I mean, think of all the idioms that have nose in them, like ‘right under your nose’ or ‘having a nose for something’ and ‘following you nose’.

And as for smells, well that often comes with wise words: ‘Live simple, love well and take time to smell the flowers along the way.’

– Mark Twain.

Interesting the impact such a common thing as smell can have on a life. It’s always the little things.