“Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young
How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from?
I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it..”
– Twenty One Pilots
The above quote comes from the hit single “Stressed Out” by the award-winning band Twenty One Pilots. You might be wondering why we started off with three lines from a song but bare with us while we break down each line:
“Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young”
How many times have you caught a whiff of a scent and it immediately triggered memories of ‘the good old days’? You may be walking down the street when a strong waft of a certain smell rushes into your nose and you’re immediately transported back to when you were five years old and busy moving into a new home. You can see everything as clear as day as if you’re standing right there, watching yourself. Nostalgia sets in followed by a series of emotion.
You feel the excitement that comes with new beginnings. It is as if a floodgate of emotion has burst open and in the middle of a crowded street, lobby or conference room. You’re probably looking like a crazy person smiling like the Cheshire cat for no apparent reason. All of this, caused by a single scent. We previously discussed the power of scent and how it can make you feel certain emotions and shift your mental state.
Why the feeling of nostalgia?
The reason for this sudden feeling of nostalgia is the complicated but beautiful work of our biology. Once a smell enters the nose and travels to the olfactory bulb where it is processed, the emotion centre of the brain – specifically the amygdala, is triggered. The olfactory bulb has a strong input into the amygdala and the emotional memories that are evoked by the scent are extremely powerful. The reason why we feel the emotions so strongly and powerfully after a scent-triggered memory compared to any other scent-triggered memory is due to the strong connection between the olfactory bulb and the amygdala.
The strange thing about these emotional memories is that they very seldom evoke unpleasant emotions. In fact, Dr A Hirsh from the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation calls this the ‘Olfactory Evoked Recall phenomenon’. This phenomenon is the immediate recall of childhood memories after coming into contact with a particular odour. Research showed that these childhood memories were found to have a rose-tinted filter over them making all memories appear as good and happy.
Our minds tend to reshape memories – especially those from childhood, into good memories, even when they might not have felt that way at the time. An experience that may have seemed bad at the time can be reconstructed by the mind to appear better because the experience represents a period in our life that we will never get back. For example, childhood memories triggered by a scent usually bring on a happy, nostalgic feeling because we are reminded of the carefree days when the anxieties of being an adult had not yet gotten a hold on us. The situation itself might have been difficult at the time but it is reconstructed in our mind to bring about happy feelings.
“How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from?”
There are the usual suspects such as the smell of freshly baked goods that comforts you while reliving the memories of playdates at Granny’s house after school, or the smell of chlorine to transport you to a happy summer’s day relaxing by the pool. A lot of the time though, we can never identify the scent and it can become extremely frustrating.
If you catch a whiff of something that triggers a happy memory, do you walk around like a Border Collie on a mission to follow the trail of the scent? Trying to find out where it is coming from and somehow identify it? Even with your nose-in-the-air-sniffing technique, you probably rarely find the origin of the smell or the smell itself, again. The funny thing is that right now as you read this you are smelling something (even though you probably don’t even think you are smelling something) and in a few years time you might smell it again and be transported right back to this moment in time. Kind of sounds like a scene from Inception or something, doesn’t it?
“I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it…”
Imagine if we could store certain smells. It would be like storing emotions and little happy snippets of your life that you could relive whenever you felt like it. Although, that sudden moment of happiness you experience when a specific scent hits you by pure chance is like an exciting little gift life throws at you every now and again, and that is pretty spectacular. Imagine if you could then give this gift of spontaneous scent, on demand to anyone, anywhere you choose – making them feel, act and even remember you a certain way.
If you could store any smell and, better yet – decide when you would like to smell it (coffee first thing in the morning or even pina colada around 5), what special scent would you make a candle out of?