Think of some of your most powerful memories, and there’s likely a smell attached: the aroma of suntan lotion at the beach, the sharpness of freshly mown grass, the floral trail of your mother’s perfume. “Scents are very much linked to memory,” says perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. “They are linked to remembering the past but also learning from experiences.”But despite its primacy in our lives, our sense of smell is often overlooked when we record our history. We tend to connect with the past visually – we look at objects displayed in a museum, photographs in a documentary, the writing in a manuscript. Sometimes we might hear a vintage speech, or touch an ancient artifact and imagine what it was like to use it. But our knowledge of the past is almost completely deodorized.…Smell is unique among the senses in the way it is processed by the brain – olfactory information travels directly to a brain region linked with the hippocampus and the amygdala, sites of memory and emotion. Scientists have suggested that the way smell is processed makes smell memories particularly strong and persistent. But outside of our memory, smells themselves are ephemeral: They are formed by volatile chemical compounds that can easily disperse and disintegrate. So smell is both a powerful part of our experiences and an evanescent one.
I had heard as a kid that the memory of a scent lasts longer than that of any of the other senses, despite being the least developed of them. (Alas, I recently learned that it’s not true; yet another lie foisted upon my innocent, trusting young mind.) But I’ve always had a heightened appreciation for smells, especially in an artistic context — I find that both visual and musical sensations are made much more intense and vividly particular when combined with powerful aromas. Looking at photography while listening to trance-inducing melodies and rhythms and inhaling certain fragrances is a pleasant enough altered state for me.