Fun Fact: did you know that while receptors for all the other senses connect to the main part of the brain (the cortext), the olfactory receptors are different? In fact, one part of the olfactory system connects via the amygdala, which is one of the parts of the brain that deals with memory.
My theory is that this is why smells hold such powerful, vivid memories for us. Who can mistake the smell of birthday candles as they're being blown out. Or what about that crisp smell the air gets right before a big snow?
Haven't you ever been somewhere and smelled something that transported you to a whole other time and place? The other day I was walking down the street and something smelled dry and still, like airport air that has that musty travel smell to it. In instantly got this pang of memory of a time when I was stranded in an airport in Brazil for an entire day, not knowing whether or not my flight would be allowed to leave.
The truth is, part of the reason why scents are so difficult for writers is that there are very few "smell words" in our vocabulary. We have lots of words for sounds: loud, soft, brassy, whisper. There are also plenty of words for touch (soft, smooth, rough) and taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour). And don't even get me started on sight; aside from a plethora of adjectives, we also have the vocabulary of colors at our disposal.
But for smell there's hardly any. Instead, we'll use similes and metaphors to say "that smells like movie theater popcorn" or "that smell is suffocating." The only smell word I can think of is "pungent" and even then, it can refer to taste as well as smell. In fact, most words we use for smells have been appropriated from one of the other senses (like saying something smells sweet or sharp).
Because smells are linked so strongly to objects or places, it is no surprise that smell should be so closely tied to memory as well. That's where this week's exercise comes in.
Writing Exercise: Scent of a Memory
Follow each of the steps and don't proceed to the next one until you have finished the current step.
- Think of a scent you love. Write it down (3 words or fewer).
- Describe this scent.
- Is there a place you associate with this scent? What is the significance of this place?
- Is there a person associated with this scent? What is this person's relationship to you?
- Why does this scent remind you of this person or place?
- Write down a memory of this person/place.
- Last question: what color is this scent?
Here ends our foray into Writing Through the Senses. It's not to late too late to join the challenge so sign up by clicking on the above link and read all the Writing Through the Senses posts. I'll be drawing the winner and announcing the results next week!