Living Memory: How Scents and Sense Make Time Travel Possible

The power of scent

by SHFamily | Fri, December 15, 2017

By Amiek Krakers

The power of scent is one that never fails to amaze me. Any number of smells can make you feel a sense of nostaglia that is hard to compare, in an instant transporting you to another time and place. It’s something unique, and while sometimes jarring, it’s a beautiful, universal, and deeply personal thing. This is one of the reasons I went into candle making, and how The House of Opulence was born.

Family Evening

Being a person that sees with my nose, I find myself to be traveling through time daily, as if I’m a character in a Madeleine L’Engle book. Once, I followed a woman on the street to ask her for the perfume she was wearing, overwhelmed by the orange blossom, honeysuckle, and gardenia that wafted as she passed by. It reminded me of my childhood summer holidays together with my family in the Mediterranean, transporting me to a time in my life that I was eager to embrace.

A wrinkle in time

It’s moments like this in particular that stand out the most to me, especially with the holidays upon us, and our loved ones maybe not as near as we’d like them to be. Those instances where you can feel a sense of family, tradition, and history so suddenly can come from the most unexpected places, and when they do, they are often full-on.

Working in the world of scents, I’ve been fortunate enough to share in the stories of many. When confronted by frankincense and myrrh, I watched a young woman’s eyes start to twinkle, and could see her mind wandering off. After a moment, she told me it reminded her of her first love in life, a boy she had fallen for 20 years ago. Their romance lasted only three months, but the intensity of it came flooding back, triggered by the cologne he used to wear: a scent with frankincense and subtle notes of myrrh.

It was musky and heavy, painting a picture in her mind of a faraway country that she'd never been to, all wrapped up in the openness and uncharted territory of a first love. With a smile on her face and a hint of sadness in her eye, she said whenever she smelled those two fragrances together, her heart was with him. The reason this happens is because scent is engrained in our memory through our body’s structure.

Rose Scent

Amanda White, research technologist in the Psychiatry Department at Penn State College of Medicine, US, explains how the link between memory and smell all comes down to the way our brains are wired.

“Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. . . The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus.” 

All of these pieces work together in what's known as our limbic system, which is responsible for the majority of our feelings. White points out that sound, touch, and visual information don’t pass through the same area of the brain, explaining why smell is the most powerful sense for triggering emotions, making it a direct path to the hard drive of your memories.

Christmas Scents

For one man, jasmine, Bulgarian rose, and geranium reminded him of his childhood family holidays in the South of France, where he spent summer evenings playing in the garden until late with his siblings and cousins. Hiding behind trees, and within the lush green, they picked flowers for their grandmother, the late sun warming and enhancing their sweet scents. To him, it seemed like the days lasted forever, a feeling that returns despite time slowing with age.

porpourri

The memories evoked by scents can be so powerful that they bring to life attitudes and feelings that have been unfamiliar for dec-ades. Like perfume on skin, the relationship between any fragrance and who it touches is unique and responsive, something unlocked only upon contact. This heightens the intensity, and only emphasizes the attachment we form in those rare moments where we can identify our tethers.

Unspoken language

While I know what goes into my candles, not everyone can identify the pieces that make up their memories. Scent is so powerful and sensory that it has the ability to transcend language, painting pictures that we may not have the words to describe. As the oldest of our senses, it predates our need to communicate verbally, a craft we spend our entire lives learning to do better. You can even see this in how words themselves are constructed, as we have many different names for colors like “red” but often describe scents by referring to the words that produce them, like “smoke” or “laundry”.

Family Togetherness

Sitting down with a woman who was interested in my candles, she asked me about the fresh, green perfume with touches of white flowers, galbanum, and green mandarin that made up the candle she had lifted off the shelf. It took her back to her first days as a new mother, holding her new-born baby boy in her arms. The maternity room had filled up with flowers, some of which would make their way home with the rest of the new, full family.

New Baby

The bed was made with fresh white linen, and out the open window she could look onto the garden with its freshly cut grass. While her son is now 15, the memory was very much alive when she held that candle in her hands. It was a gift being able to tell her just what those owers were, 15 years later, in an intimate moment that was beautiful to share.

Feeling fragrance

For many of us, when November and December come, our limbic systems get spoiled big time. With winter dishes, the oozing of spices, stews, and seasonings fill our homes, whether you’re cooking for one or for many. Rosemary, thyme, and clove make their way into dishes or sachets, and for those that celebrate Christmas, red poinsettias often deck the halls. Cozy candles spread their light, while dining rooms are adorned with tangerines, mulled wine, and pine trees, filling the season with the richness of a lifetime’s compounded experiences.

Rosemary Thyme Lavender Herbs

That this season is so steeped in scent is what makes it such a memorable one. Everyone’s stories are different, and nearly every holiday has its fair share of both good and bad moments. With children, often too many cooks in a kitchen, and houses that are filled to the brim with people, it’s easy for us to drive the ones we love a little nuts. But so rarely in our lives do we get to make space for family and togetherness, that it seems hard to not let this special time of year be defined by what is being built, and not what is being bandaged.

Whether we are lucky enough to spend it with those we’ve known our whole lives, or find ways of forging new traditions with our chosen families here abroad, I hope this December is filled with the scents, and a sense, of presence and past.

Shanghai Scents: Local finds to light your home this holiday.

The House of Opulence

House of Opulence

With scents like Ginger Lily, Basil Flower, and Serene Voyage, you can buy Amiek’s hand-crafted candles for ¥280 at the-houseofopulence.com.

ReKindled

ReKindled

This Shanghai-based artisan sells their large candles for ¥300, with refills for ¥200 on WeChat at: shanghai-gift-co.

6PM Candle Co.

Margaret’s small-batch, soy based candles run ¥280, in scents like Amber Cedarwood on 6pmcco.com.