A ballad of the senses

When you’re an infant those memories made aren’t really that accessible when you get older. That’s because humans generally suffer from something scientists term infant amnesia. Something to do with rapid neuron growth disrupting the brain circuitry that stores old memories, making them inaccessible (they are not lost, but tucked away). Of course you don’t want to remember everything that happens in life… that would clog our brains with a bunch of nothingness. But we all have selective memories from infancy which we can visualize when they are triggered. For me there are but a couple, and they are usually triggered by an associative sense.

The first is the earthy smell of a cellar, which triggers fleeting memories of childhood times at my grandmothers house in Switzerland. The second is also of the same time and place – the deep smell of wild raspberries. These memories are triggered by olfactory senses, making the visual, however latent, emerge even if for a brief moment. It is no different to the other associations we make between vision, smell, and taste. Dragonfruit is a beautiful looking tropical fruit, but it can have a bitter/tart taste. Some of these associations have helped us survive over the millennia.

Raspberries on a bush.
Mmmm… raspberries… but you can’t smell them, or taste the ethyl formate (the chemical partially responsible for their flavour)

It makes you wonder then if these sense-experiences don’t allow us to better retain memories. If you travel to somewhere like Iceland, and take a picture of a geyser, you may also smell faint wisps of sulphur. There is now an association between a photograph of geyser, and physically experiencing it. The same could be said of the salty Atlantic air of Iles de la Madeleine, or the resinous smell of walking through a pine forest. Memory associations. Or maybe an Instagram of a delicious ice cream from Bang Bang ice-cream. Again an association. But how many of the photos we view lack context because we don’t have an association between the visual, and information gathered from our other senses. You can view a picture of the ice cream on Instagram, but you won’t know what it tastes or smells like, and therefore the picture only provides half the experience.

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