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  • Betty Girardeau

Olfactory Memory


Last night I had hamburgers for dinner (not these). If you are like me there are certain smells that bring back memories, both good and bad. The smell of my cooking burgers brought back a lot fond memories, most of which were also related to the carefree days of childhood summers. And this reminded me of another summer smell that I love, the smell of fresh cut grass. These days, because we tend to have our windows closed and the air conditioner running we unfortunately don't get to enjoy that smell very often. Certain holidays are also closely related in my mind to particular smells: roasting turkeys to Thanksgiving and Christmas; fresh cut greens and/or a live Christmas tree recently brought into the house also to Christmas; vinegar in the dye solution for Easter eggs; and the smell of sulphur from Fourth of July fireworks to name but a few. Some smells can remind of us of particular people, like my Mother's favorite perfume or the sweet smell of my freshly bathed babies. Every Friday my Mother changed the sheets on all of the beds, and there was nothing better than climbing into bed that night and breathing in the essence of the dried lavender that she used when storing the freshly laundered sheets. When I went to school work sheets and most of the tests had been printed on mimeograph (ditto) machines which, especially fresh from the machines, exuded the aromas of methanol and isopropanol that were major ingredients in the printing fluid. Freshly varnished hardwood floors remind me of the first week of school every year, and other school memories are conjured up by what chalk dust smells like. When I see really old cars I am reminded of how my grandfathers' cars and garages both smelled like a combination of oil, gasoline, dirt, and aging upholstery and how exciting the smell of a new car was until that smell, too, started to disappear to be replaced by the "old car smell." It's no accident that smell and memory are so closely tied together. We are hard wired for that to happen. The olfactory system is located in the same part of the brain that effects memory, emotions, and creativity. Dr. Philip Kronk wrote in an article that appeared in the Knoxville "News Sentinel" published in May, 2017 that "While sounds, pictures and touch can bring back memories..., scientists have found that only the sense of smell can vividly and intensely bring back...memories." As a photographer I know that pictures can often speak louder than words. But for this blog about smell, how could I marry smell to an image? Hopefully the smoke rising from the cooking hamburgers helps to do that a little. But it is certainly no real replacement for the real thing. I rather expect my words did a better job of jogging your olfactory memories. And I hope all, if not most of them, are happy ones.

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