By Pam Pacelli
As a junior in high school, I was given an assignment to write about a deeply pleasurable experience. Immediately, I recalled to the joy of baking sugar cookies with my grandmother in her kitchen but—try as I might—I could not describe the glorious smells of the newly baked cookies. Frustrated, I placed a drop of vanilla extract on the paper, hoping that when my English teacher smelled it, he would be able to share my experience.
“Miss Pacelli,” he wrote on the essay, “ In future, could you take care not to spill grease on your work before turning it in.” Mission aborted.
Smell is the only sense that has a direct line to the emotions. A scent travels immediately to the olfactory cortex, which is embedded deep within the limbic system of the brain, our emotional center. Smell evokes direct memories from our earliest childhood in a way that sound, sight, hearing and touch do not.
Here is what Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times had to say in her article on smell, published in August 2008:
…Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, described the power of smell to serve as an almost magical time machine, with potential for treating dementia, depression, the grim fog of age…Studying groups of Swedes whose average age was 75, the researchers offered three different sets of the same 20 memory cues — the cue as a word, as a picture and as a smell. The scientists found that while the word and visual cues elicited associations largely from subjects’ adolescence and young adulthood, the smell cues evoked thoughts of early childhood, under the age of 10. And despite the comparative antiquity of such memories, Dr. Larsson said, people described them in exceptionally rich and emotional terms, and they were much likelier to report the sudden sensation of being brought back in time.
So how do we use this intense and immediate sense in our work as personal historians? We can’t put a dollop of vanilla on the pages of our books or on a DVD case, but we can ask questions that will help our subjects unlock olfactory memories. For instance, someone who grew up in a crowded urban environment: What was the first thing you remember smelling when went out the door on your way to school? Or, for someone who grew up on a farm: what were the first smells you remember on your parents’ farm?
Of course, as personal historians, we need to vet our clients before we ask these deeply evocative questions: someone who was a child in a labor camp or is a refugee from a war is not a good candidate for these kinds of questions.
For many of our clients, though, being “nose-y” may lead them back into their own personal time machine.