Look After Your Mind – Common Scents

I have a confession to make. Many years ago, when I was at college, I used to splash on some ‘Burley’ cologne for men before going to the disco. Another confession I must make is that I’ve kept the bottle ever since: there’s a little bit of cologne left in it, and sometimes when I have a quiet moment by myself, I’ll unstopper the bottle, take a sniff and memories of those far-off disco days flood into my mind.

Trigger your emotional memory

The reason for this is that the olfactory nerve, the nerve running from the nose to the brain, connects with the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory and what has been called ‘emotional memory’. So my little sniff of Burley brings back the feelings too as I remember those college dances.

And I’m using the word ‘remember’ very deliberately here to mean ‘re-member’ to bring back to the members or body the emotions I experienced then. (This is different from recall, which is to ‘call back’ thoughts into the conscious part of the mind, with minimal emotional content.)

Remember smells

There are sound evolutionary reasons for being able to remember and recognise scents (and of course tastes, sounds and images). By remembering the smell of a plant that’s good to eat for instance, our distant ancestors could use that information as another check that a plant they’ve just happened across is the same as the one they enjoyed previously.

Evoke pleasant memories

For our purposes in the context of wellbeing, we can use aromas to deliberately evoke pleasant memories. Take a moment perhaps to remember experiences you’ve enjoyed and what scents formed a part of those. The memories will come to you of course, but by seeking out those same scents again, you’ll add an extra vividness to those past events.

The link between a scent and a memory is known as an olfactory anchor (olfactory from Latin olfactare, to smell). These can be created deliberately. For instance if I choose to take a walk on a pleasant spring evening, by consciously noticing the aromas I encounter, blossom, newly mown grass or the general freshness of the air, I can in future remember those walks more vividly by bringing the smells to mind.

As an aside, while some people find it difficult to remember a scent, the ability will improve with practice. You can also attempt to describe the smell at the time and use that description again when you wish to remember. This might be linked to a colour, a sound or even movement.

For me honeysuckle has a ‘pale gold sweetness, slowly sinking downwards’. As you see, such descriptions are personal and quirky and might not make sense to anyone else. But that doesn’t matter.

Finally, if you meditate or even want to relax briefly, choose a pleasing aroma to include in your quiet moments. Smelling that scent subsequently will help to recreate that sense of serenity even in the middle of a busy day.

Steve Bowkett