How Smell Evokes Memory and Emotion

smell evokes memory with oranges and fire

When I was a child, Christmas was the smell of oranges and cigars and the Christmas tree, resinous and strange.  Put any two of them together and it still bounces me right back into the past, bringing with it firelight, the bustle of friendly company, a sense of holding my breath in excitement. Smell is the first route by which I recall emotion.

Why smell evokes memory : the science bit

There is a reason for this, I find. Olfactory neurones in the upper part of the nose generate an impulse which signals the limbic system, that part of the brain which controls not only memory but also emotion, mood and behaviour.  Supposedly, this is one of the most primitive parts of the brain.

Smell — the fallen angel of senses?

Apparently, Helen Keller called smell “the fallen angel of the human senses” because we don’t use it any more to tell us there’s a tiger in the area. And I agree that we live in an intensely visual age, with more communication illustrated than ever before.

smell evokes memory when couples kissBut we do still smell food that has gone off.

And, even more important to the romantic novelist, smell is an important part of sexual attraction.

There is even a school of scientists who hold that kissing started as experimental sniffing.  God bless their pointy little heads.

For me, in fiction, the sense of smell is less a fallen angel than Cinderella. And I have never understood why until I tried to transfer my smellmemory experience into my current novel.

How authors use the sense of smell in fiction

As I researched, I found that authors who conjure up brilliant images, conversations and even sounds, can seem at a loss with the most visceral of the senses.

There are honourable exceptions. Dickens was good at the stench of London, the river, the meat market, the prisons. Ian Fleming (personally a fan of Floris No 89 eau de toilette, incidentally) also did disgusting smells really well, nailing the 3.00 a.m. casino as “scent and smoke and sweat”. And when the second Mrs de Winter investigates her predecessor’s bedroom, she is overwhelmed by the traces of Rebecca’s white azalea perfume, which has become “faded and old”.

smell evokes memory with white azaleas

Using smell to evoke the protagonist’s memory … and the reader’s

But, though all of these carry emotional messages, none of them plug into the personal memory of the protagonist. Nor do they engage with that moment of shock as the imagination instantaneously jumps back in time without warning.

I wanted to do both. My own heroine is brought up short by the smell of growing lavender and plunged into a forgotten childhood memory. It was taking me too long to describe the smell. The scene lost impact.

smell evokes memory with lavender

A masterclass, from Mary Stewart

And then I found the answer in one of my favourite books, Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart.

The heroine has passed out from exhaustion and lack of food and the shock of seeing her lover standing over the dead body of his father. The next section of the book begins, “…Warmth, and the sound of liquid, and the smell of azaleas … And someone was patting my hand. But there was no music and the voice that said my name was not Florimond’s.”

And it worked.

It worked, not because the author describes the smell of azaleas — though I have it in my nostrils even as I type — but because she is referring to a big romantic scene which we have already witnessed on the page. The reader is given all the triggers to remember it, too. In fact, the reader goes on exactly the same journey as the heroine. And is now ready — as the poor, distraught heroine is not, yet — for an ending of high romance.


Now to see if I can apply this lesson …

smell evokes memory


13 thoughts on “How Smell Evokes Memory and Emotion

    1. Sophie Post author

      Completely agree, Jan. And all done with such economy. As a fellow practitioner, I’m in awe. As a reader, I’m in Heaven.

  1. rosgemmell

    An interesting and helpful post – and thanks for the lovely reminder of how much Mary Stewart’s books have meant to most of us over the years!

    1. Sophie Post author

      She was wonderful, wasn’t she?
      Very glad if the post was helpful, Rosemary. Still experimenting myself, but it certainly felt like a really good path to try.

  2. Louise Allen

    Lovely post, especially as a reminder of how important all the senses are to a writer. I’m fascinated by the thought of azaleas having a scent – I can’t smell it, nor can I smell the perfume of freesias. Genetic, apparently. But I don’t think anything triggers memory for me more than scent – those clear mint sweets – one sniff and I’m 12 years old, standing on the shifting stones of the sea bank above Duckpool beach on the North Devon coast being offered a bag by the first boy I had a crush on. (He looked like the young David Attenborough).

    1. Sophie Post author

      I was surprised by ‘the scent of azaleas’ too. Apart from the yellow ones, that grow pretty close to wild and smell decidedly of honey, azaleas had all seemed pretty nose neutral to me. But I did a bit of research, after du Maurier and Stewart both referred to the scent. Rebecca’s are specifically white azaleas and grown in the grounds at Manderley. It looks as if they may be North American natives, R (for rhododendron, one assumes) Atlanticum or R Alabamense. And I suppose we’ve all heard about the scent of those old Georgia nights! Probably such scented azaleas were more fashionable in the 50s?
      I must say I like the sound of your first crush. Fox’s glacier mints? Good choice!

  3. Lesley Cookman

    I’m relieved that there’s someone else who can’t smell freesias! My favourite scent, Rochas’ Femme, is enormously evocative. I bought my first bottle, duty free, in Bahrain when I was flying. You know, when Pontius was a pilot. I didn’t have any more for years, and when I was given a bottle by my husband, much, much later, it took me straight back to that time – how I felt, the atmosphere, everything. Even more years later, my eldest daughter asked for a bottle for Christmas. “Why?” I asked, she being an extremely modern young woman. “Because just one whiff sends me straight back to you tucking me up in bed before you went on a special night out.” Aaah. Sniff.

  4. Sophie Post author

    Ah, that’s a lovely pair of memories, Lesley. My first grown up perfume was Shocking, which felt very grown up indeed and just bit out of my comfort zone, not too voluptuous but full of hidden possibilities, if you know what I mean. Long gone now.

    Maybe Libertà Books should do a blog piece about Perfumes We Have Worn and what memories they evoke?

    And I completely identify with Lou, too. Only in my case, the tucking-in was done to the biscuity smell of horlicks.

  5. Barb Strickland

    This post reminded of something I had long forgotten tucked away as it was by the passing of time. My father had bought a pen, a normal pen with which to write, sign or use in some way as you with writing materials. The point being it was nothing special but from memory it was classy looking. I don’t know what it was made of but it lasted like what seemed forever at least to a child. Every time he used it there was a slight fragrance that would drift from the paper that now so many years later I still struggle to describe and yet still lingers in my mind. It smelt like that first taste of ice cream, rich, cool and crisp and yet full flavoured but gone so quickly. Mixed with this was an underlying odour of food cooking, petrol, and people, lots of people. He bought that pen when we lived in New York, I was six but the scent of the pen stayed for years after we went home to Australia.
    Every time he used it I would be thrown back to a street in Brooklyn called Pitcan Avenue (I don’t know the correct spelling) and then every minute of the time we lived in New York flooded back as if I was still there. It brought that street alive and with it came the memories of living there, in a place so vastly removed from Sydney. Even today I still remember the feeling though the pen and my father are long gone. Smell is greatly under rated when we write. It was a good post, thank you.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Good Heavens, what a lovely flash of memory, Barb. I was right there with you, with the ice cream on my tongue and busy people surging past. Thank you very much.

  6. helenajust

    Smells are so evocative, and yet impossible to describe except by reference to other smells, and that doesn’t work because each smell is unique. Barb, I suspect it was the ink which you were smelling; I love the smell of Quink ink! I’m surprised to learn that some people can’t smell freesias, and find it fascinating; I suspect there’s a whole science to smells and how we perceive them. But them I’ve often wondered if we see the same colours as each other, and how we could ever know.

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