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Many of us have plucked up Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past with the full intention of completing all nine volumes. Don’t worry, most people don’t finish the task. This article focuses only upon the famous opening chapter of the work wherein the protagonist, Charles Swann, finds himself transported back to the days of youth after smelling a petit madeleine cake dipped in tea.
Surely, you have enjoyed similar moments after catching a whiff of something that smells like your grandmother’s baking, a beloved toy, a piece of clothing (Underoos, anyone?), or perhaps your old favorite brand of gum. When the smell hits, a host of forgotten memories flood unabated into your mind. Why does this happen? Neuroscience studies have revealed several clues to reveal the cause of these revelations.
(1) Smell is the oldest sense: The sense of smell is quite complex and finds it origins in the senses for finding chemicals in water and the atmosphere. This capability protects us from harm and requires the assistance of 1000 smell receptor types. The receptors are self-regenerating and allow our brains to build a mental catalog of nearly every smell we’ve ever encountered.
(2) The brain: The “olfactory bulb” processes smells and situates itself next to the hippocampus, which is a hot spot for creating new memories of events. If something damages this part of the brain, people are unable to build long-term memories or remember anything from the past other than short-term, “Episodic memories.”
(3) The big one: The most powerful reason why smells are so powerful to memory, arrives with the part of the brain called the thalamus, which functions as a relay session for most senses. Smell is different. When memory involves a particular smell, the sensation actually bypasses the thalamus and heads straight for the hippocampus. Thus, the memory buries itself within our psyche. This explains why memories of smell seem pulled from deep within but are easily forgotten without a reminder. Over time, a smell memory becomes so pronounced that it’s easy to relive the previous experience … and even launch some new memories in the process.