It is 1981, sometime in late May, and I am at the end of the year picnic for sixth graders at Cosmo Park in Columbia, Missouri where I grew up. Next year we will all be at our junior high schools–starting again as lower classmen, but, right now, we are the big shots at Ridgeway Elementary, out for an all day celebration at the park because it is our last year there. I am one of the youngest in my grade and will not turn 12 until the end of September, in seventh grade. And, I am a late bloomer, patiently waiting for the feminine attributes I see in the pages of Teen Beat magazine. But I have a desperate crush on a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy named Billy Biggs and, on this afternoon at Cosmo Park, he is on the monkey bars with me. Just me.
Billy Biggs was but a blip in the motion picture of my romantic life but I think about this scene each and every year at the very same time and, as much as I’d like to tell you it was because of Billy and his wild charms, I think there’s only one thing to blame it on. The wild roses–floribundas. They were everywhere around us that day on those monkey bars and, although I did not see them, I smelled them. For May is the bloom time for this native and slightly invasive rose and I smell their heady fragrance now when I drive into town, when I walk to the post office and when I take my run. Each year, this cloying scent jogs the memory of my nearly-twelve-year-old self who had only just begun to dream of becoming a woman and falling in love.
Anyone who has ever picked up a whiff of comfort food that reminds them of home, caught a trail of a perfume once worn by a former lover or lowered their nose to breathe in the smell of a baby’s head to recall the days of early motherhood knows the emotional power of our olfactory system. And, where this sense, in animals, is primary and often necessary for survival, in humans it is a primitive sense that is less about survival than it is inextricably linked to the thread of our own human story.
The brain’s olfactory cortex, the place where scents end up after the nose pulls them in, is located in my favorite part of the brain, the limbic system. The limbic system is famous for three things: for being the brain’s pleasure center, for being the emotional control panel and for being the keeper of memories. Together, these three components wield great power to help shape us into the people we become and, on an immediate, present-moment level, they actually determine, to a certain extent, how we learn (very simply put, when we are having fun, we become more personally invested and we remember more–an educational win-win). In fact, olfactory is so good at the job of remembering that it imprints faster and stronger than, say, auditory or visual. In a 2008 Times article, Brown University professor, Rachel Herz, discusses her research on the human olfactory system and illustrates the powerful bond between scent and memory:
Numerous studies have shown that smell memory is long and resilient, and that the earliest odor associations we make often stick. “With a phone number, if you get a new one, a week later you may have forgotten the old one,” Dr. Herz said. “With smells, it’s the other way around. The first association is better than the second.”
Other scientists think of smell as a “magical time machine” that can be used to treat human conditions like depression and dementia. In studies on memory in people over 75, they found that smell cues evoked more memories than any other sensory cue and that they also had the ability to evoke older memories from our lives, those that we experienced under the age of 10. And while most of the neurons in our bodies die without any successors, olfactory neurons live for approximately 60 days and are constantly being replaced by new neurons from a layer of stem cells beneath them.
Our olfactory cued memories are most definitely associative–they rely on that initial conditioned response to keep triggering the memory as the years roll on. Billy Biggs was not to become my first boyfriend that day in May, but he spent some time with a young girl who would grow up to believe in many kinds of memory magic and the power of forged relationships and friendships as they exist within our sensory experiences. He could have been off playing football with the other sixth grade boys but he sat with me, legs swinging, on the top of the monkey bars on a sunny, spring day with wild roses blooming all around us.
“And all the world is football-shaped, It’s just for me to kick in space. And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste. And I’ve got one, two, three, four, five senses working overtime. Trying to take this all in. I’ve got one, two, three, four, five. Senses working overtime. Trying to taste the difference between a lemon and a lime, pain and pleasure and the church bells softly chime.” ~Senses Working Overtime, XTC, Andy Partridge
TRY THIS WEEK: Take time to stop and smell the roses, friends.