Roses and muscle cream: how scent carries memory

Visiting my grandparents for a week in the summertime was a tradition of my childhood. Each day my sister and I escaped the “seen and not heard” policy in the house to run free in the yard and at the school playground across the gravel road. Since we were rarely allowed in the front room (kept for company, of course), we always used the back door. This required a harrowing trip through the bees that swarmed the rosebushes my Grandmother had planted along the house. To this day, the scent of a sun-warmed tea rose takes me back to those days.

Scent is one of the strongest senses tied to memory. The reason behind this seems to be related to the anatomy of our brain, according to Venkatesh Murthy, chair of Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. He shares that scents “are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the regions [of the brain]…related to emotion and memory.” See full article.

This was illustrated for me recently when I came across a tube of Aspercreme in the grocery store. After a quick look around me, I opened the cap and inhaled the eye-watering aroma, instantly transported to a sofa in my mother’s basement. There I sat every day after high school swim practice, talking to my boyfriend on the phone while rubbing that muscle cream on my aching legs and arms. The boyfriend is long gone, but the memory is still sharp and crisp in my mind.

We all have scent memories of times past and of people who are no longer with us. Maybe it is the aroma of cookies baking, or a favorite recipe being prepared that takes you back. Or perhaps it is the leather of a well-worn baseball glove, a can of shaving cream, or the breeze coming off the ocean.

When someone we love dies, re-creating these scent memories tied to our time with them can stir warm feelings and bring us back to the times we shared. Sometimes these memories can take us by surprise, and are unwelcome, but many can bring comfort. So, buy that muscle cream, make that recipe, head to the beach, or stop and smell those roses. Your loved one will be with you there.