Yesterday when I was tying the branches of my tomato plant to the stake to hold up the tomatoes, a scent was released that transported me straight back to childhood.
Hard to explain that scent. Kind of woodsy. Pungent.
My arms that brushed against the leaves instantly became itchy. I remember that feeling as well.
I am back in my Granny’s garden with the rows and rows of vegetables. Tall rows of corn waving in the breeze. The sound of cicadas marking the season.
Did you know that smells have a stronger link to memory and emotion than any of the other senses?
Have you ever wondered why?
Neuroscientists have discovered that when you see, hear, touch, or taste something, that sensory information first heads to the thalamus, which acts as your brain’s relay station.
The thalamus then sends that information to the relevant brain areas, including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, and the amygdala, which does the emotional processing.
But with smells, it’s different. Scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain’s smell center, known as the olfactory bulb.
The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which might explain why the smell of something can so immediately trigger a detailed memory or even intense emotion.
The Power Of The Brain:
The brain is interesting and all powerful.
I know now why my senses can instantly bring on flickering snapshots of the past. Sometimes it brings on this strange sensation, but I don’t know what triggered it. Or what it actually triggered.
My brain is on high alert. I am waiting for some memory to seep into the present. But it won’t form. And then it feels as though I’m being lifted to a different place. Sounds recede. A calmness descends.
It doesn’t happen often. I can go years without it happening. It isn’t at all unpleasant really.
The Psychology Of Sound:
When we get tired, sleeping gives our bodies time to rest and rebuild. But as it turns out, not so much for our brain, which remains extraordinarily active.
In addition to organizing our memories and sorting through which information we need to keep, our brain is on high alert.
When it comes to survival, the “fight-or-flight” response, sound triggers the sleeping brain and acts as our first line of self-defense. Specific, distinguishable sounds convey vital information.
Scientists have learned that even when a person is deep in delta-wave sleep, the bundle of neurons at the base of the brain known as the Reticular Activation System is always listening.
Acting like a bouncer at the door of your mind, it’s passing judgment on whether a particular sound is important enough to justify waking the cortex and the rest of the body.
I find all this data so interesting. Because these highlighted senses have been so integral to taking me back, back, to another time and place. Maybe it’s this way for everyone to some degree.
Treating Alzheimers, Etc.:
The senses are part of the therapy used with Alzheimers and dementia patients. Using everyday objects, therapists can trigger emotions and memories in seniors who have lost their ability to connect with the world around them.
Sensory Stimulation Therapy
Sensory stimulation uses everyday objects to arouse one or more of the five senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch), with the goal of evoking positive feelings.
Used in Europe since the 1960s, this therapy was originally designed to help people with learning disabilities. It was a way for them to explore a safe, stimulating environment that provided age-appropriate and enjoyable activity.
Since then, the therapy has become widely used to treat other conditions, including:
- Brain injuries
- Chronic pain
- Other forms of dementia
So much research over many, many years. And encompassing all of the senses. You can see why they figure so prominently in our lives and memories.
Sound, Scent & Hearing:
Sound, scent and hearing has elevated me to a somewhat primal state at times. It can cause a brain lapse of memory. What they call “losing time.”
It can take me to a fundamentally more primitive state of mind. I know there is a memory related to this heightened feeling. But I can’t reach out and grab it. It is floating in the ether just beyond my reach.
Finally the feeling lessens and disappears. And I always wonder what my brain picked up on. What it was trying to tell me. Or in this case, not tell me.
I was told by a psychiatrist that this is the brain’s way of protecting me. She said it typically begins in early childhood. And, she told me, once the brain learns something, it can’t be “unlearned.”
You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
This is formally called dissociation.
Dissociation has been defined as: a “disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal, subjective integration of one or more aspects of psychological functioning, including – but not limited to – memory, identity, consciousness, perception, and motor control.”
Dissociation includes involuntary intrusions of sensory and cognitive information, bringing it into conscious awareness.
Yet it is like sand drifting between your fingers. It’s there and so quickly it is gone. It is the illusive butterfly you cannot catch.
It protects you from memories that you were too young to process adequately. So it is actually a gift.
Emily Dickinson Poem:
There is a pain so utter that it swallows substance up
Then covers the abyss with trance—
So memory can step around—across—upon it
As one within a swoon goes safely where an open-eye would drop him—
—Bone by bone – Emily Dickinson
The meaning behind the Emily Dickinson poem is that at some point our brain may need forgetfulness to heal.
Even when very young, our psyche can separate part of itself from the traumatic event as it is occurring and can seal itself off in a necessary disassociation.
When a trauma is happening, the psyche uses its built-in system to protect the seed/the essence at the core of our being. (Psychology Today)
Has this ever happened to you?
All in all, it means that sometimes a force takes over that is beyond our comprehension or cognition. And that force protects us when we need protecting.