Next time you are at walking through a home that’s for sale, you may notice a subtle realtor’s trick: cookie dough in the oven on low heat or a bowl of fresh lemons on a table. Unless you hate cookies, the smell will quickly remind you of “a time when…” From there, it’s a short, quick leap to you imagining yourself living in the house you are casually inspecting. Likewise, lemons generally evoke memories of a clean home and simple times.
Science has known for years that scent is the sense mostly closely tied to memory. This is why smells often evoke such a swift and intense reaction, for better or worse. Without getting too deep into neuroscience, the olfactory bulb (the part of your brain responsible for smell) is part of the brain’s limbic system. That system is responsible for driving your adrenaline, emotion, long-term memory and behavior.
I never really gave it much thought until a trip to Stockholm five years ago.
I use international trips as an excuse to check out the Travel Size products in my local drugstore. I’ll grab things like wet wipes, lotion or toothpaste to tide me over while I’m in airports and on planes. That way I can pack my own products in my checked luggage instead of fiddling with pouring them into tiny carry-on approved containers.
For that particular trip to the heart of Scandanavia, one of the samples I grabbed was a small tube of Johnson’s Body Care “Melt Away Stress” Lavender and Chamomile Lotion. It takes a lot of bravery for a man to admit to using such a feminine branded product (in a lavender colored tube, no less). I decided that no one was going to be close enough to sniff my hands or face anyway, and melting away stress sounded like exactly the right approach to airplane and airport tedium.
The cold, blustery December of Stockholm was more than I prepared for. Before the end of day one, my skin started to feel like tree bark. I ended up using that lotion every morning before I bundled up to brave the elements. To this day, if I catch a whiff of that fragrance, I am instantly momentarily transported back to those mornings. For a brief millisecond, I feel like I am standing in that incredible rental apartment, excited for a day of Swedish exploration.
The same goes for the scent of the shampoo I discovered during a hotel stay in Seattle, a quick spritz of the cologne I bought in Frankfurt, or the after shave I scooped up to spend the last of my Koruna in the Duty-Free shop of Prague’s airport. Likewise, it’s the reason the passing waft of a particular perfume or cologne reminds you of a long forgotten crush. Or why new car smell makes people instantly giddy. And why so many stories about this time of year focus on the smells of Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Next time you are reaching for a trinket to serve as a memento from your travels, think about how many tchotchkes and souvenirs you already have stowed in the attic or collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. If the point of them is to serve as a reminder of a great time, doesn’t it make more sense to grab something that hard wires your brain to remember?