Skip to content

What’s that smell?

Would you like to feel like a kid again? Start by buying yourself a box of crayons. With school starting this month they’re available almost everywhere. Now bring the box home and open it. Take a whiff.
smell flowers

Would you like to feel like a kid again?

Start by buying yourself a box of crayons. With school starting this month they’re available almost everywhere. Now bring the box home and open it. Take a whiff. Before you can say “plaid lunchbox” the smell of new crayons will transport you back to elementary school. If you’d rather relive a secondary school experience, try it with a box of map pencils.

Patsy Morris Plano Profile

There are lots of theories as to why our sense of smell is so strongly linked to memory. One has
to do with the proximity of the olfactory bulb, the neural circuit that transmits smell information
from the nose to the brain, to the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory. It’s said that
centuries ago hunters would take along vials containing substances with distinctive smells when they embarked on expeditions. When they came across something they wanted to remember, they opened a vial and sniffed. Smelling the contents of the vial later would bring the experience back to them in detail.

I don’t know if that’s true, but for years the smell of the strawberry-flavored lipstick I wore in the seventh grade took me straight back to PE class. One whiff and I would be sitting in the gym in my hideous new gym clothes with my name embroidered on the shirt pocket, hoping the PE teacher (a mean woman) wouldn’t find fault with any part of my outfit and take points off my grade. There’s a memory. No wonder I finally threw that lipstick away.

Lots of my own olfactory memories are associated with school. The yeasty aroma of rolls baking in the cafeteria, the clay-like odor of the pages of seldom-used science books, the dizzying smell of the early Magic Markers (surely those things were toxic)—all of them bring some part of my educational experience rushing back. School was a happy place for me, at least in the early years before trigonometry. I hope the students who are about to start a new school year will build memories olfactory and otherwise—they can feel happy about when they become adults.

During a convention in St. Louis a few years back a group of us decided we’d heard enough and needed a break. We took the afternoon off and headed out, debating the relative merits of the zoo, the ballpark and the arboretum. In the end we opted to check out the Clydesdales and the Biergarten via a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Midway through the tour we entered a room filled with gigantic vats of beer; we were practically knocked over by the smell.

“Mmmm,” commented one woman. “Smells like college.”

Indeed. I can’t smell incense without feeling like I’m back in the dorm. Vaseline Intensive Care lotion has the same effect, as does Chantilly cologne.

Some scents touch me so profoundly I seem to be feeling rather than smelling them. The essence of damp pavement when it’s just starting to rain makes me a little melancholy, while the smoky odor of heater coils burning off the dust of the summer feels cozy. I’m betting I’m not the only one who can sense the warmth of a mother’s love in a whiff of Estee Lauder Youth Dew.

The Texarkana region, with all its trees, is home to more than one paper mill. The mills provide jobs and benefits for lots of our citizens and are without question good for our local economy. Sometimes when the wind blows just right, though, the unpleasant emanation that results from paper making reaches our house.

“It smells like onions boiling in toxic waste,” I complained the first time I smelled it. “Really?” replied my husband. “Because most people around here think it smells like money.”

That’s what I call a positive spin. May all your sensory experiences this month be pleasant ones.