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Monday, January 28, 2013

the smells that make you happy (hello, Coppertone, muffins and Polo)

It can happen anywhere.

Starbucks. I smell blueberry muffins being added to the case. I close my eyes and there I am--at Sylvester's in Northampton. It's breakfast, one of many with my new boyfriend, the man who will become my husband. The smell of blueberry muffins/blueberry pancakes reminds me of happy, sweet moments looking at this boy I loved across the table as we tucked into blueberry pancakes together. Now these moments are tied together in my mind and I am reminded every single time I smell blueberry of those moments of falling in love.

This happened again last night when I was at the market when hot golden chicken pot pies were taken out of the oven. I became almost elated. Sure, the smell of a fresh baked crust and gravy were heavenly but it instantly evoked afternoons spent making pot pies with my grandmother. I became immediately happy. There was nothing more in this world that I wanted at that moment than to surround myself with hot chicken pot pies. This smell reminded me of love, of my grandmother speaking softly to me in French, teaching me how to make a perfect flaky crust when I was no more than 5 years-old but it was as if it was yesterday.

I decided to look into this, to see why scent has such a powerful impact on memories. I had heard that scent is the one sense tied most strongly to memories and I wanted to know why. So did Marcel Proust. This is what I discovered:

"In Swann's Way (Proust, 1928), the smell of a madeleine biscuit dipped in linden tea triggers intense joy and memory of the author's childhood. This experience called The Proust phenomenon, is the basis for the hypothesis that odor-evoked memories are more emotional than memories evoked by other stimuli. . .Odor-evoked memories are highly emotional. . ." -- A Naturalistic study of autobiographical memories evoked by olfactory and visual cues: Testing the Proustian hypothesis, American Journal of Psychology Spring 2002 (Rachel S. Herz and Jonathan W. Schooler)

So, if when you're reading this you wonder why the smell of Polo for men makes you swoon, here's the science behind it:

From Dr. Maggie Grotzinger:

"The sense of smell in humans and other primates has a bit of unusual “wiring” in our brains compared with other animal species. Unlike the other senses, olfactory nerves go to two destinations in our brain; one is the frontal cortex, where we consciously recognize a scent. The second destination is the limbic area of the brain, which is a more primitive and ancient part of the brain dealing with emotion, motivation and types of memory.

Because of this wiring of our olfactory neurons, often a particular scent might evoke a certain memory from childhood or other notable event in our past life."

The technical term is called Involuntary Autobiographical Memory. In other words,  if you were crazy about a boy in college and he wore Polo (as most boys in college do) and today you walk by the cologne counter at Nordstrom and you smell Polo you will either swoon (because he really was one of your first loves) or walk briskly by the counter feeling nauseated (because he was an ass and he was wearing this scent the night he made out with your college roommate.)

Last night walking by the chicken pot pies I realized that I was suddenly in a happy mood. Even though I was wet (I walked jacketless from a far parking space in the pouring rain) and annoyed (this was second trip to the market that day to pick up things I had forgotten on trip #1), my mood instantly changed the moment I smelled the pies that reminded me of my grandmother.

I decided to make a list, an emergency list, if you will, of smells that make me happy, smells that either evoke a happy memory or just make me happy for no reason at all. And when I need to get happy, I'll remember that I just need to take a whiff.


Here are some of my favorite smells in no particular order:

Prell Shampoo (This is my favorite shampoo. The smell reminds of me summer camp and tennis lessons)

Warm gingerbread cookies (well, because they are cookies. And gingerbread)

Fresh baked bread (it's bread. it's warm.)

Blueberry Muffins (it's all about falling in love with my husband. Plus, they taste like summer)

A puppy's paws after a nap (because her paws smell like Frito's or popcorn.)

A baby's head (this one kinda makes me sad too, but mostly happy. I think this one is strongly neurologically based to make every woman want one too.)

Fried Dough (sure that greasy fried treat tastes great but Fried Dough reminds me of the boardwalk at Hampton Beach and pretty much every autumn fair I've ever been to with friends and family. Best. Sundays. Ever)

Gardenias and Night Blooming Jasmine (my favorite flowers remind me of tropical vacations)

Hot Apple Pie (this one almost feels primal. It reminds me of autumn in New England and the fall weekends spent apple picking on sunny, crisp days when the leaves and sky are so technicolor it almost hurts to look at it.)

Coppertone (I actually wear this as a moisturizer all year long. It reminds me of summer days, those happy halcyon summer days spent frolicking in the ocean.) 

What scents make you happy? I'd love to hear what scents makes you smile. 

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