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?

Sensory Information:

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:

From The Nature Of Things: 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.

Delta-Wave Sleep:

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.

From Alzheimers.net:

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:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Autism
  • 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.

Dissociation:

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.

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10 Comments

  1. This is why music is so important for Alzheimer’s patients, too – it can trigger memories from the past.

    I agree that dissociation can be a gift, especially to someone who’s been through some kind of trauma.

    Have a good day, Brenda!

  2. This struck such a chords with me. I love the Emily Dickinson poem too. Thank you for doing the research and posting this for us.

  3. When you taught children in firs grade who were delayed in reading often the activities combined visual, tactile, and auditory modalities. Once these were all working together they were learning. It was explained that they needed a flap to open in their brain to allow all the signals to work properly. The next goal was to teach them to orchestrate they were making mistakes. Only after that could they shown how to correct themselves.

  4. Years ago I read an article online about a word from another language, maybe Swedish or Danish, that was used to describe the feeling that you get when you are having a daydream or memory that seems to be about a real event, but you don’t think you ever actually experienced what you are remembering. Darned if I can remember the word, but it started with an “h” I think. This word described something different than deja vu, where you feel like you are reliving a fleeting moment. What I read about was not the feeling of reliving something, but of having a memory of something, yet having no memory of what you are remembering. It was a fascinating concept, and I’ll work at trying to remember the word. Has anyone else heard of what I am talking about?

  5. It has happened to me! The force took over when I was almost kidnapped at a shopping center parking lot! Watching my granddaughter’s face, I knew to get in my car, groceries in all. When I put my groceries in the backseat, is when I saw this guy crouched down with his arms out, waiting for me to back up, after closing the door, so he could grab me underneath the armpits and pull me into his vehicle! It gives me the creeps writing this, but I want everyone to beware of their surroundings of all times! This makes the 2nd summer coming up, since I was almost kidnapped! My granddaughter wouldn’t come over my house til recently. When she did, she had a nightmare that someone was chasing her!
    I was so scared and couldn’t believe it Almost happened to me, that I forgot about it for awhile, til I read that a woman and child almost got kidnapped at a rest area! That triggered my brain and everything came rushing back in, that had happened!
    Since then, someone goes grocery shopping for me, but I can’t let that [email protected]**d rule my life anymore! Besides I always like to see what new products have come out too! I just won’t be talking to strangers anymore…which I didn’t then, just to people I know! If someone parks weird by me, then I will move my car, closer to the store, that I’m going in!
    Our liver plays a very important part of our body too! Alot of people are not drinking enough water and it makes our liver work even harder! You should read about everything that your liver does bc it’s interesting as well!
    Have a great evening with Charlie and Ivy!

  6. I find brain research fascinating. So much about our own inner workings to still learn and understand. Whenever I smell my gardenia flowers in the garden I am reminded and transported back to my mother tucking me into bed at night. She wore a gardenia scented perfume . The aroma of coffee brewing makes me think of waking and going into the kitchen to greet my mother in the morning. Most of my sensory memory is tied to her as she was my comfort and security. These scents for me have been imprinted and most days bring me comfort still and other days bring longing for the past.

  7. Good morning Brenda, one of the reasons that I love to bake is that the smell of certain recipes transport me right back to my grandmothers kitchen and I can picture myself standing next to her with my siblings baking. Some of the happiest moments of my life.

    This is an excellent post, I had read some of this information before but I did not know about the work with Alzehimer patients, that is fascinating.

    I hope that Charlie is feeling better and the Miss Ivy is keeping you on your toes with her antics.

    Have a great day!

  8. A fleeting memory I have from earliest childhood is my mother’s mother having candies flavored with lavender. A brief whiff of lavender at times brings me back to a time visiting a grandmother I barely knew. (We lost her to Alzheimer’s disease many decades ago!)

  9. Our brains are the most amazing organ in our body next the heart. It is amazing how our brains work and work and never shut down. It demands the most of our blood in our body too to maintain along with the heart. I remember taking care of a patient that was transitioning with dying and his lower body was in rigamortis and he was still alive. The brain and heart shunted all the blood at the waist and took it back to the brain and heart. It will keeping going until all other organs have shut down. I too have felt different smells that brought back good memories of childhood. It is truly an amazing organ.
    Kris

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