Scent, Memory and Emotion: If fragrances could write memoirs… February 26, 2015 10:38


What is your first childhood memory?  I think mine was playing in a sandpit as a toddler before my older brother inadvertently threw a shovel full of sand in my eye.  But my second was the smell of my mum’s pashmina scarf as she picked me up from  nursery and carried me to the car.  She used to wear “White Musk Essential Oil” from the Body Shop, and its smell was always comforting.  Little did I know then that the word ‘musk’ originates from the Sanskrit word for ‘testicle’, and that white musk is a lab-produced copy of a deer’s prepuce gland. It was almost as disturbing to a young mind as finding out that sausages were made from pigs. (perhaps my 3rd childhood memory?…).

Perfumery is an art, and artists need to find their inspiration from somewhere: what better place to start than your own memory?  Giorgio Armani wears a fragrance from his own exclusive ‘Armani Prive’ collection: Armani Bois D’Encens (literally translated as ‘Wood Incense’).  Reflecting on his inspiration for the fragrance, he writes

“I was looking for the smell of incense from my childhood, when I went to church with my grandmother. It had depth and warmth which also reminded me of the black stone of Pantelleria.”

<Pantelleria being an island in the Strait of Sicily where he now has a rather lovely holiday home… oh how nice that sounds!>

I have visions of Mr Armani liberally spraying his impeccably perfect suit with Bois D’Encens, with closed eyes and a contented smile as he takes a deep breath that takes him back to his childhood in a sun-drenched Italy.  Unfortunately, not all memories linked to smells are so idyllic.  A few months back, I got talking to a sales assistant at a fragrance counter about scents and related memories.  For him, he couldn’t stand the smell of lavender – it reminded him of his grandmother who used it to mask the smell of urine.  He now carries this painful scent burden forevermore.  

Maybe then, such fragrances are more than just a memory – they are a memory of an emotion.  Love, comfort, lust, anger, disgust, but never indifference.  Funny how you always remember the argument, but not what you were arguing about, right?  Because your seething anger at the other party’s gross stupidity/incompetence/annoyingness set that particular memory in stone.  Anatomically, the direct link between your 40 million smell-detecting olfactory cells and limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for emotion and memory formation) is undisputed.  Visual, auditory and sensory impulses on the other hand have a rather more indirect method of reaching the limbic system, perhaps explaining why the emotional response we have to certain smells often feels stronger than to other stimuli such as sight or sound.  And maybe that’s why when we smell something memorable, we often feel it too.

Andy Warhol, perhaps the most famous contemporary artist of recent times, utilised the power of fragrance to help catalogue his memories:

“I switch perfumes all the time.  If I’ve been wearing one perfume for three months, I force myself to give it up, even if I still feel like wearing it, so whenever I smell it again it will always remind me of those three months. I never go back to wearing it again; it becomes part of my permanent smell collection…”

I think using scent as a trigger to recall memory is nothing short of genius.  “Where did we go on holiday in the Spring of ’95?  Hmm… that would be my 3 month flirtation with Donna Karen Cashmere Mist…  Ah yes! Camping in Austria.”  Perhaps a little tenuous, but I’m a romanticist so I’m sticking with it.

Childhood memories act as the inspiration for some of the most desirable fragrances that grace our shelves today, and fragrances have an uncanny ability to trigger memories and emotions from years, nay decades ago.  So tomorrow morning, when you restart the daily grind, take a shower and hurriedly spray on the usual Eau de Toilette – know that it may have more of an impression on someone than you may imagine!


Title image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence 

Warhol A, 1975: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again Pub. Penguin Classics 2007 ISBN 014118910X

Taylor R, 1836: Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy Contained in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London: Connective and tegumentary systems and peculiarities, Volume 3, Part 2 (Google eBook). p276

Giorgio Armani Beauty USA: Bois D’encens – Woody Eau de Parfum. [accessed on 20/01/14]

Boston University Medical Campus, 2009: The Limbic System [accessed on 20/01/14]

Wikipedia, 2013: Musk [accessed on 20/01/14]

BBC, date unknown: Nervous System – Smell [accessed on 20/01/14]