Words by Emily Burkhardt Art by Dasle Gang
Our nostrils are one of the most underrated orifices on our bodies. I firmly believe that we don’t talk about our noses enough.
They’re smack bang in the middle of our faces, so I feel like they deserve some attention for a second. Specifically, I want to talk about that moment when you get a whiff of something, and you have this weird flashback to a particular moment in your past. If you’re like me and feel very weird internally when this happens, I’m here to make you feel better. We can blame it on our olfactory memory.
Officially speaking, olfactory memory refers to the recollection of an odour. A single smell can unlock the door to a crazy world of complex emotions and memories. Sometimes you won’t be able to put a name to the smell. But, you know as you get a whiff of it, you’ll have a reverse That’s So Raven vision-esque recollection of hanging out with your grandma or frolicking in a field when you were five and still innocent.
A smell can send you back in time in an instant, no TARDIS required. But, how do our schnozzes do this nonsense?
The answer comes from the fact that smell and memory are closely linked, perhaps more than any of our other senses. When you see, hear, touch or taste something; that information is transported to the brain’s sensory mainframe – the thalamus. From there, the thalamus relays the information to the limbic regions like the hippocampus and amygdala for emotional processing. In brain time, that takes a while. But, our noses have a highway straight to the brain’s smell centre – the olfactory bulb. This wonder bulb has direct links to these limbic regions that deal with certain types of memory. There’s no detours, diversions or stops along the way. The smell goes straight from our nose to a place where we can process it. To be honest, the science gets slightly more complex at this point. The gist is that the smell centre is connected to the memory centre, and they’re storing long-term memories connected to odours like there’s no tomorrow.
So, these weird moments of recollection are no accident.
Although I’ve mentioned happy smells of picnics and grandma, smells can also be potent triggers for the mind to return to particularly traumatic or negative experiences. This is incredibly common in people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as certain smells can cause people to flashback to distressing events from their pasts.
Unfortunately, the few olfactory memories that I can comprehend in my life fall in this mentally-scarring category. Mine aren’t PTSD-level serious, but they certainly aren’t sunshine and rainbows.
The strongest one is the smell of wood burning from a campfire. My nose won’t let me escape my 2013 camping trip from hell, because I’m transported back into the wilderness with a single whiff. I had to go full bush with a bunch of strangers I barely knew because I’d only been at a new school in a new state for less than six months. I was one sore, exhausted, homesick human who lacked any kind of mental stamina. Long story short, I was in full crying/panic attack mode for two days straight. Thank God I perked up for the last three days, because I’m 100% certain my fellow campmates would have killed me. But, the memories still remain, wrapped up in the flames of burning wood. Yay me.
Smell will always be the special one of the senses because it enters deep into the heart of the brain directly. The brain structures involved in olfactory memory were present in the very first mammals on Earth, so we’ve been doing this shit for a while.
So go use your schnozz for good and take a big, long whiff of the world around you. Who knows, your brain might’ve saved that moment in its memory bank for the rest of eternity. But, don’t sniff the world in a creepy way, I don’t want to be implicated in any weird arrests.