You know what I mean. You’re walking along somewhere and you smell something that transports you back to another time when you smelt it before, feeling all the emotions you felt then. It’s known as “odor-evoked autobiographical memory” or the Proust Phenomenon, after French writer Marcel Proust. In his novel, Swann’s Way, the narrator does just that—transports through time and memory triggered by the smell of a Madeline cake dipped in tea.
For me, its the smell of chicken curry that does it, taking me back to a memory of comfortably sitting on my mother’s lap and being fed, her fingers forming balls of rice and curry then lovingly depositing them in my mouth, Mama Bird to Baby Bird. It brings up feelings of safety, nurturing and care. Chicken curry and rice is indeed one of my comfort foods and needless to say, being fed by someone has formed a core phrase in my learned language of love!
Smells can take us sentimentally, happily wandering though positive memories. Or they can also be potent triggers of negative emotions. In studies of people with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), a smell can trigger disturbing memories, feelings of guilt, fear, nausea or helplessness. With one whiff, you can suddenly be back in your own private hell.
The response to this type of smell stimulus is fast and non-verbal. In a nano-second you can experience powerful emotions that can leave you smiling or crying. But why does scent trigger memory? And how does it trigger such strong emotions? The answer is literally all in your head, in the brain’s anatomy. When we get an incoming smell, its first processed by the olfactory system, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, directly connecting to the Limbic System, a v-shaped structure that sits on top of the brain stem. It is made up of the hippocampus, amygdala, part of the thalamus and the hypothalamus and several regions of the cerebral cortex. This is the zone that manages the interface between emotion and memory. It’s also the oldest part of the brain where our basic drives, needs, instincts and fears live. The limbic system also plays an important role in selecting and transmitting information between short and long-term memories, which explains why a short-term experience (like smelling a baking pumpkin pie) can trigger a long-term memory and corresponding emotions (like happy family feasts at Thanksgiving).
When we get into the Free Lion Lab (ok, kitchen) to blend scents, we’re definitely influenced by our own scent memories. There are smells that remind us of where we’ve been and happy memories associated with them. Like Tofino Breeze. This one was named for Tofino, a place on the Pacific Ocean where our young family vacationed. It is a place of windswept beaches and fine sand where the crashing waves are large enough to put Tofino on the world surfing map. It is also where both my sons learned to surf and where we spent many relaxing hours playing on the beach and exploring tidal pools and caves. When I was a child, Rose water would be splashed on individuals and crowds during celebrations—births, weddings, holidays. Rose Garden came from these memories with a desire to ground them more in the everyday happiness of kicking back in the garden.
I would say our creative process is part intuitive art, part measured chemistry. When we blend, we look to create a balance between aromas, with base, middle and high notes. This is the more rote part of scent blend development, where we experiment from a base recipe and sometimes using advice from more experienced formulators.
But then there’s “the Nose”—that ephemeral knowing you’ve nailed it but you can’t say why in words. I know we’ve hit it when I take in a full nose bouquet of a blended scent, close my eyes and feel my body’s “Ahhhh!” response. The body is wise—must be the hypothalamus and the way it communicates with the pituitary gland via neural and chemical pathways to release hormones into the body. Its also the art of, “it just feels right”!
Sherazad Jamal, The Free Lion Team