Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Smell evoked memories

Yesterday, I was listening to the here on earth podcast on the "scent of desire." If you've never listened to this podcast, there are some interesting topics--everything from food to books to Islam to research, etc. This one talked about the evolution of scent with Rachel Herz, an expert on the smell of psychology. Rachel believes that smell is the sense most closely tied to mental health and happiness.

If you think about this, smell certainly plays a significant role in our lives. We use smell to distinguish various objects in everyday life--simple things like food and flowers to more complex odors like our spouses/significant others, etc. In research, smell has often been linked with taste. Those who have anosmia often report a loss of taste which also influences their dietary behaviors, as seen in this recent study. Studies have also looked at depressed individuals and shown that they have a loss of smell. Then with eating disorders, studies have shown that there are olfactory deficits, as well as taste differentiations.

But besides this, smell can also evoke strong memories. This reminded me of a piece I wrote on a smell-memory association in an honors/writing course in college. In this specific exercise, we were in pairs. One partner was blindfolded and and had to choose an item out of a bag and write what memory evoked from the smell. The object I obtained was garlic salt. I wrote a piece on it for both this assignment and as an introduction to another body awareness paper.

The distinct smell of garlic salt reminded me f the times when I was young and cooked spaghetti with my father. The spaghetti part was always easy--boil the water, put the noodles into the pot. However, making the sauce was the tricky part. Since my father was an expert cook, he didn't believe in store bought sauces. Rather, he opted to make his own sauce from scratch. Although my father was never a "methodical" man, he did make his sauces that way. First, he minced the elephant garlic clove and chopped the onions and carrots. He used to tell me that you could never use too much garlic in anything. After the olive oil was heated, he'd add the carrots, onions, celery, and garlic last, not wanting them to burn. Once the onions were clear, as he would tell me, then you could add the the crushed tomatoes. the next part was his "secret," as he used to say. Spices such as basil, oregano,. salt, black and white pepper, and red flakes were
sprinkled into the sauce. The last part was to add some mushrooms and tomato paste to thicken it.

As my father made his special sauce, I watched intently. One of the things that amazed me about my father was that he never measured anything, yet the sauce always turned out perfect. "Years and years of practice," he'd tell me. I sure believed it, as his sauce smelled so good. When he wasn't looking, I just couldn't resist and would taste it--just to make sure it was exactly right. He'd question who tried the sauce, knowing it was me, but of course, playing to my innocence. I can
still remember the smell of the sauce. The pleasant aroma filled the house and would last for hours. I used to tell myself that one day I would be able to cook like him and create my own things.

This smell-memory association evokes both happiness and sadness in some aspects. I know I adored my father and enjoyed the equality time with him. After all, not too many daughters at my age (five or six) and fathers have similar interests of cooking. However, the sad aspect of
this certain smell and memory is when I think about it now. Smelling that aroma takes me back to the days when food was not such a big issue. It reminds me that then I didn't worry so much about what I looked like or what foods I ate. Instead, it was only food--nourishment for your body, but with no meaning attached.

Nowadays, I look at that food and think, "do I really have to eat this, how many calories are in this, how long would it take me to burn off?" Although I try not to attach a meaning to it, it's not always easy. These certain smells like the garlic salt remind me of my
childhood days--when it seemed everything was so easy, when I was a different person--a happy child with no real worries. There are days that I yearn to reach that spot in my life again. Yet, at the same time, it's a paradox in a way, because I can't seem to remember it that well. I know I did not have an unhappy childhood in the classical sense of any kind of abuse or neglect, but the memories that stand out most to me are still the ones more in the realm of sadness. Maybe one only remembers what is exception as Virginia Woolf said; or as Iris Origo believed, that "memory has a filter of its own, sometimes suppressing or retaining but always significant--some that stand out in disproportionate clarity to the res." And in my case, the most vivid memories were ones that did not envelope my daily life of what seemed happy.

To this day, spaghetti.is still a difficult food for me, though it is better than it used to be. It's not due to the taste but rather the memories behind it. I think it also hits me hard, because I still remember that certain smell when spaghetti was purged. Like my aversion with cheese which I've talked about before, it's pretty interesting just how much smell is laden with memories.

So how does smell affect memory for you? Is there a connection with your eating disorder past of present? Has your sense of smell been affected due to a mental illness?

EDIT: I should also note that parts of my childhood are now viewed differently and there was trauma. At the time when I wrote this piece, I never looked at it that way.


Ai Lu said...

I cannot stand the smell of vomit.

Of course, not many people like that smell anyway. But it goes beyond the mere reaction of disgust for me. Vomit reminds me of all of the times when I bent over the toilet, willing my food to come up again.

A few years ago I was at a rowdy party at my old university, and once someone threw up I had to leave. There was no way that I could stick around with that smell in the air.

REBECCA said...

Hello there. I just stumbled onto your blog and wanted to offer my support in your journey. I'm fascinated by olfactory memory - the story about your dad's sauce is a lovely example of a powerful mental phenomenon. Best of luck to you!

Rebecca Barnard
owner of Limba Systems (motivation based on the science of olfactory memory)

blog: LimbaSlim.blogspot.com

Tiptoe said...

Ai Lu, I agree. I still have a hard time with smelling anyone's vomit and have to remove myself from the situation.

Rebecca, thank you for commenting and wishing me well. The olfactory system has some remarkable properties, and an intriguing sense.

Sar said...

Smells are definate provoker of many, many memories, both bad and good. There are certain fragrances I cannot wear for a while, due to me relating the smell of them with an occasion that went *wrong* and then there will be times when I can be out somewhere and catch a random smell which triggers off the most detailed memory recall- usually a memory of something that I didn't even know existed in my head anymore. Sometimes can be comforting and sometimes,incredibly saddening.
I currently wear a fragrance on a daily basis that I call 'the smell of positivity'. I started wearing it a couple of months ago when I really threw myself back into recovery and every day when I spray it on, I remind myself that it is connected to feeling strong and mentally tuned.

Gaining Back My Life said...

"That smell after throwing up the spaghetti" - that really struck a chord with me, as it's not somethings I've ever consciously thought about.

There are many foods I cannot eat now as the 'aftersmell' is so disgustingly putrid to me.

I like to smell things like fresh baked bread, because I won't eat it, and it makes me feel powerful. That's not something to be very proud of, though!

Tiptoe said...

Sar, yes smells can provide such powerful memories. It's interesting how subconscious they can be.

Yeah to wearing the new "positive" perfume. If it makes you feel strong and helps you, then it's a wise choice.

GBML, after-smells and after-tastes can definitely turn off foods.

I've felt similarly powerful, smelling certain foods I know I couldn't possibly imagine eating. I find I'm only like that when in extreme restriction.

Lissy said...

back when i was starving, the smell of food could knock me over. i'd tell myself, "that's not for you. that's for other people." i'd get quite weak in the knees -- some from longing and some from sheer hunger.

italian food had a special effect -- i'd walk by a pizzeria or get stuck at a business lunch, smelling everyone else's pasta while i stared at my little lettuce leafs, dressing on the side and virtually unused.

still today, the smell of marinara sauce whiffs me back to a time when it wasn't for me, just for other people.

i have to remember that i can eat pasta now, but it still scares me just a little.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I smell my "trigger" foods (that I ate a LOT of before I had WLS), I sitll feel like I'm in my old 314lb body and eat tons and tons of it, it almost makes me lose control of my mind in a way. It's scary. I try to avoid situations where these certain foods are near. It sounds silly, I know.

But smells are also a positive thing for me; I just bought a perfume at Anthropologie that smells *just* like a doll I had when I was a kid. It makes me happy. It reminds me of when all I had to worry about was making the honor roll. Heh.