What Smells Trigger Powerful Memories for You?

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What Smells Trigger Powerful Memories for You?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

How much attention do you to pay to the smells around you? Do any scents trigger powerful memories? Do any transport you to another time or place? Your childhood? A holiday? A trip abroad? Summer camp?

What would your life be like without a sense of smell? Which fragrances and aromas would you want to savor forever?

In “Welcome to Our Museum of Smells,” Jaspal Riyait and Melissa Kirsch curate a collection of reader ideas in response to a recent Times article about the power of smell. Here’s how they introduce the piece:

The restaurant critic Tejal Rao recently created a “personal smell museum” of her life in Los Angeles, cataloging the aromas she encountered in her home and her office, the scent of vanilla she detected when driving past a commercial bakery. I asked her why she thought a smell museum was such a vital way to document her life.

“Every time you notice a smell — fresh bread, your best friend’s house, a wet dog, garlic frying in butter — it means volatile particles in the air have entered your body and, just for a moment, become a part of you,” she said. “There is no sense more intimate, or more complex, which is why recalling your own personal smell memories can be so precise, vivid and even emotional. Your recollections might be one day, or several decades old, but that smell was once a part of you.”

We asked New York Times readers what smells they would archive in their own smell museums, what scents are so alive for them that they have become part of them.

These are a sampling of the reader entries describing how smell has a powerful impact on memories and experiences:

It has now been over half a year since I’ve been inside my grandmother’s house. I visited her garden and said a socially distanced “Hello,” but it wasn’t the same. I missed the smell of her house. I used to stay there for a few nights every so often and I’d always come home smelling “of Granny’s house.” I wish there was a better word for it! I think it’s a combination of home cooking, dust and love.

— Aimee Ross, 15, Inverness, Scotland

When I was growing up, my dad owned a concrete business. To this day, the smell of newly poured concrete at a construction site stops me in my tracks and I think he must be somewhere nearby.

— Jeanne Prittinen, 60, Northern Minnesota

There are two distinctive soap smells that instantly transport me back in time. One is Dove, which returns me to high school. The other is Neutrogena, which takes me back to my college dorm.

— Magdalen Livesey, 76, Wilton, Conn.

One scent that always catches me when I encounter it is the smell of my classroom in elementary school. Three of the components of this scent are books, paper and floor wax. The smell immediately evokes an image of myself as an elementary school student dressed in a cotton dress and velvet Oxford shoes.

— Nancy Pennea, 68, South Florida

The smell that fallen leaves release when I walk through them. It’s spicy and earthy and reminds me of jumping in leaf piles with my sister when I was little. Those leaves have a distinct sound, too: a brittle, airy rustle.

— Rachel Donegan, 46, New Hampshire

The smell of all of my dogs’ paw pads. The scent is exactly the same as Fritos, no matter the dog, their age, breed or where they’ve recently walked. All of them smell like corn chips.

— Jen Topp, 50, Bethlehem, Pa.

I wish there were a single word for the smell of sawdust, motor oil and soil. That combination of “manly” smells always makes me think of my father who worked with his hands all his life. It is what I smell in his garage, 25 years after he has passed away. It makes me feel safe.

— Donna Lovelady, 57, Indianapolis

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Which of the Times reader experiences resonated most with you and why? Do some scents instantly transport you back in time as the smell of Dove or Neutrogena does for Magdalen Livesey? Or powerfully remind you of a person the way the smell of newly poured concrete does for Jeanne Prittinen?

  • What scents would you put in your own “personal smell museum”? Tell us about at least one smell, using the Times reader experiences as a model for your reflection.

  • The restaurant critic Tejal Rao writes, “There is no sense more intimate, or more complex, which is why recalling your own personal smell memories can be so precise, vivid and even emotional.” Do you agree? For you, is the sense of smell the most intimate and complex of your five senses?

  • How strong is your sense of smell? Does your sense of smell help you in any way? Does it ever hurt you? If so, how? One of the odd symptoms of Covid-19 is the loss of taste and smell for some people. How would the loss of smell affect your life?

  • What are your favorite and least favorite smells? What do you believe is the most beautiful smell in the world?

  • Which of your five senses — sight, hearing, taste, touch or smell — would you say is your most developed? Which is your least developed? After reading the article, do you think you will pay more attention to the smells around you?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.