The Evocative Power of Scent

- 19 Dec, 2020

This year, I was given a Tea Advent Calendar all the way from Delhi. It’s beautiful, full of aromatic teas and tisanes that have been a joy to drink.

Day 2 was Traditional Masala Chai. With my pan of boiling milk ready, I opened the tin to add a spoonful. As the smell of the spices hit my nose, I was immediately transported back to the family kitchen of a school friend – gosh, this must be 20 years ago now – where her mum used to make masala chai traditionally on the hob. I hadn’t thought about this moment in years, but one whiff of that tea took me right back.

In the brain, our sense of smell is intimately connected to memory and emotion. Smell is the only sense that doesn’t travel to the same ‘processor’ as the other senses. While the rest all go through the thalamus, smell travels through the olfactory bulb and into one of the oldest parts of our brain, called the limbic system. This is associated, amongst other things, with emotions and memory. It’s why the smell of onions might (especially if you’re Persian) transport you back to grandma’s kitchen, or why overcooked brussel sprouts take you back to horrendous school dinners. Smell is one of the quickest ways of invoking good (and bad) memories.

If you know the story of Proust’s madeleine, you know the power that these sorts of memories can evoke. The author writes of a time he was eating a little French cake called a madeleine, with his tea:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea. (Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu)

Note how the taste (though some argue it was actually the scent) doesn’t just bring back a mental image, but a visceral, deeply held sensation and a corresponding emotion. ‘An exquisite pleasure’ and a deep feeling of love. Scent and taste (which are intertwined) have the power to change how we feel.

So how can this help us?

Christmas is the poster child for memories of scent. I asked a couple of friends, ‘what does Christmas smell like to you?’ and out poured a list of things with no hesitation: satsumas; orange and cloves; cinnamon; pine; wood fires; gingerbread. For me, Christmas smells like spices – cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, star anise, mixed spice – and the things I love to make with them: mulled everything, minced pies, lebkuchen. Just writing that sentence put a smile on my face.

In a year where Christmas will be different for most of us, and we may lament what we’re missing, scent is a powerful way of changing our inner state. Without denying the reality of what’s going on around us, we are nonetheless able to find a pleasurable ‘felt-sense’ that will help us in the moment. By ‘felt-sense’, I mean any and all sensations that we feel in our bodies – and we can create sensations of peace, joy, and pleasure, through smell.

So this year, fill your home with the scents that evoke your most deeply pleasurable and comforting memories. Make mulled something with lots of cinnamon. Throw in satsuma peel. Gift yourself a scented candle. Don’t overcook the sprouts. Whatever it is that does it for you, make sure you have some of it around.

And if you’d like to feel the power of scent for yourself, try this short practice:
Felt-Sense Practice with Smell
Find a scent that conjures up feelings of utter Christmas contentment. Take your time with this practice, closing your eyes if that feels comfortable so that you can fully allow your sense of smell to take over.
Breathe in the scent. Take a few breaths to allow the scent to envelop you.
Notice what’s happening in your body.
Pay attention to every sensation that arises.
What changes? How does that feel? Notice that felt sense – the sensation that comes when you are fully present with the scent surrounding you.
Recognise yourself as having that felt sense in the present moment. This is your present experience, right now.
Know that even in hard times, even when there are other emotions, struggles and fears inside you, it’s possible to hold this one, too. Breathe it in. Welcome it.
Holding onto that felt sense, gently open your eyes.
I wish you a very merry scented Christmas.
*Photo by Gaby Dyson on Unsplash

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