Memory and Triggers

It’s a cold Sunday afternoon; I’m sitting at the dining room table furiously attempting to catch up on all the homework I’ve left for this particular day. While I’m concentrating on the task at hand, my mother is preparing lunch. I don’t think much of it; this is typical Sunday behaviour at my house. I can hear some noises in the background: oil sizzling on the pan, a spoon scraping against a glass container. An aroma begins to fill the kitchen and the idea of finishing up an assignment is thrown out the window around the same time my stomach begins to growl. I inhale and suddenly I’m transported back to American Thanksgiving in November, when I was about 14 years old. We had family who lived in the States come up and visit us for a few days to celebrate the holiday.

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On this day, I remember my cousins and I hanging out in the living room, lying around on inflatable mattresses while playing card games and chess to keep us entertained before dinner. The air was filled with the exact same smell that I was experiencing just now, and as my aunt announces that the food is ready, I’m snapped back to the present day with my mother putting the same delicious meal in front of me: a turkey sandwich. I don’t know what it is about using leftover turkey for sandwiches but every time I take a bite, I have positive memories of my childhood, filled with laughter and a carefree attitude that only young kids experience. As I sit in the kitchen and reminisce, I start to wonder why is it that when we are exposed to particular smells or sights, that we seem unlock memories from our past?

There has been research done that looked at the link between smell and memory in mice. It was found that there was an increase in brain wave activity in certain parts of the brain when exposing mice to a particular smell. To start, the researchers had to set up a smell-related memory by associative learning. For me, the association would be being exposed to the smell of a turkey sandwich and positive childhood memories. For the experiment, mice were taught that certain smells would get them rewards of food. The researchers lab-mousethen looked at what happened when the mice had to retrieve the specific memory, which is similar to when I am exposed to the smell and I am brought back to the age of 14. It was found that a part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex is vital to linking spatial memory and smell, which in this case would be the mice remembering where the reward was, and that another part called the hippocampus deals with turning short-term memories into long-term memories. This could possibly explain why when we are exposed to a particular smell, memories from our past get triggered and we are transported to a different time in our lives.

I’m still eating my turkey sandwich and I begin to smile. The human brain is complex and perhaps we won’t fully understand why there is a strong association between smell and memory. At this point, I appreciate that I have the ability to bring back positive memories that I thought I’ve forgotten. Smell is one of our stronger senses that can leave people emotional or pensive of a life once lived.

Woman drinking coffee

*Images courtesy of Google