memory and smell

Even before Proust, scent has played an integral role in memory-making and memory recall throughout history. One has only to consider the vast tomes of naturalist fiction, only the tip of the iceberg. It is one of the key senses in creating an immersive experience whether on the page, in conversation, and now, in the virtual realm of screens. The rising popularity of digital scent memoirs is also strong testimony.

Alzheimer’s researchers are continuing to investigate the relationship between olfaction and memory. For some time, they have known that the loss of smell or anosmia is a sure sign of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Now teams are trying to determine how special scents can be used strategically as stimuli in patients struggling with dementia and memory loss.

Belgian fashion collective Margiela is tapping into the rich digital space for scent memory. Their fragrance line replica has spurred a social project to mine sensory-rich, smell-inspired or evocative photos via Instagram. All are invited to share their personal smell images like this lovely post by Mimi Frou Frou  by tagging photos with #smellslikememories.

Here’s my very first scent memory  and a smell image to accompany it:maplesyrupPhoto courtesy of

I will never be able to separate the smell of maple syrup from my unsophisticated yet eager five-year-old nose, from my five-year-old skin. My tiny curious self, trudging through a maple farm in the bright, crunchy snow, puzzling at the plastic jugs parasitically strapped to the maple trees’ wispy figures. These dainty giants stood at attention in service of the warm glowing cabin and its endless stream of billowing white smoke. I remember wondering if the trees were in fact bleeding. The smoke filling my nostrils with warm woodiness, goodness of the  slender forest overtook the tingly icy chill of winter’s air tickling my bare cheeks. The dim light of dusk cast an overwhelming blanket of mystery over this place, which at that moment seemed to me as secret and profound as the other side of the coat closet in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe must’ve been for those fictional children I would read about a few years later. These great clouds of smoke filled my wool scarf, wrapped tightly around my neck, over my coat, catching the condensation of that fantastic new scent dripping from my nose. How amazed I was by the rich sensations. How strange that in my memory, I am virtually alone, except for the incredulous, excited glances fired between my sister and I. Stranger yet that my memory is absolutely silent, and that this heavy silence is a crucial part of the experience that is today only awakened by the accidental thought that I love the smell of maple, but not its taste. Perhaps this is because no bottle I’ve opened to this day has had the power to bring me back to the feeling I’ve just described, the intoxicating novelty of witnessing the magical birth of maple syrup in the New Hampshire countryside. You see, the scent of maple is vision, quietude, sensation, and awe. It is too rare to be plucked from the shelf out of a crude grocery store lineup, too precious to be cavalierly spilt in public, among strangers, over pancakes or waffles or bacon.


Take a small stick of cinnamon, or a maple branch, if one is handy.

Put a dram of very peaty scotch into a small glass or bowl. A very smoky cognac, brandy or armagnac will do.

Drizzle a bit of maple syrup into the scotch. It will sink to the bottom.

Get a match (ones that light fire logs are even better).

At dusk, preferably during the winter or fall, bundle up in coat and wool scarf.

Gather your scotch-maple glass, stick and matches and go outside.

Light the stick or branch just until it smoke a bit, like an incense stick and wave it under your nose.

Throw back the scotch and maple, making sure to lick the last bit of maple from the bottom of the glass or bowl so it is the last taste you have.

Enjoy the warm. smoky, sweet, stickiness of maple against the chilly mystery of winter dusk.

For maximum enjoyment, do this alone.

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