Of the five senses, smell evokes the most distant and the most vivid memories. The olfactory bulb in the brain is very close to the hippocampus and the amygdala, which are associated with memory-forming and emotions respectively. Strong links are often forged between memories, emotions and scents. In Dementia patients, it has been documented that certain smells can trigger accurate memories of childhood.
Being here in this house is both familiar and alien. It is not my house and it will never be my home. I created many memories here, but no memories of me have lasted.
This house has sections that smell the same, and my brain remembers how I used to feel and the things that I used to do, but the differences in the scents are also striking. The people who live here have changed in my two-year absence, as have I, and many things about the house are new to me. New perfumes, deodorants and colognes. New cleaning chemicals and regimes. An ageing dog. The layout has changed. The routines have changed. The office that used to be a bedroom smells like an office, and it feels different. The people have different routines now and they use different chemicals and undertake different activities. They wear different clothes. Everybody’s smell has changed. One fewer person living here. Six ageing people, including me. This house smells different, so I feel different.
Smell can tell me about the similarities and differences between this house and the image of this house that exists in my memory. My eyes capture the light that is refracted and reflected from the objects and the people in the house. They transmit the light to my brain so that I can read faces. I can read photographs. I can read furnishings and decorations. I remember some of the decor and some of it is new to me. I see some items and I remember the long-standing arguments and drawn-out decision-making attached to them. I see photographs and I remember looking at the people in them on the night that they were taken, but I cannot remember what I looked like on those nights and I cannot remember how I felt. I know that if I stumbled across the perfume I wore then, I would remember more about myself and less about others. I look for things in this house that were brought by me, and owned by me, but there are none. They are gone because I took them away two years ago. When I smell a remembered scent, it gives me pictures, colours and emotions. My eyes take information and create meaning in the form of an internal dialogue. This house is telling me that it is not my house and it is not my home because it looks different, so I feel different.
I take in the subtle cues from my environment through olfaction and vision. Although vision is the strongest sense in humans, others would be different to me, I am sure. Perhaps they would listen carefully to their world and remember sounds and voices. Maybe they would remember the contours and textures of fabrics and the shape of other people through touch. Eating certain foods or ingredients might remind them strongly of places they’ve travelled or people they have eaten with. I suffer slightly from industrial deafness and I’m not a tactile person, so most of those memory jolts and eerie feelings come to me when I smell something or see something. I actively look to make links from these senses as my way of interpreting and remembering my world.
I have always found it particularly interesting that a scent-triggered memory can elicit direct emotions from me, but that a vision-triggered memory is dialogue with no pictures.
Being here in this house is both familiar and alien. I have aged. It is not my house and it will never be my home. I created many memories here, but no memories of me have lasted. We look different, and we smell different, so I feel different. This house and I, we are not the same as we once were.