Memory and scent have long had a seemingly magical connection. Who can forget Harry’s iconic rant in When Harry Met Sally when he tells her “I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes”, or the moment in Anastasia when the young Anna smells peppermint oil and immediately remembers her beloved long-lost grandmother. The connection between memories and scents has been recorded long before these films; novelist Marcel Proust inspired the term the ‘Proust Effect’ after he coined the phrase ‘involuntary memory’ in his novel Remembrance of Past Things. Proust’s famous passage, where the protagonist remembers his Aunt’s house after smelling a madeleine lime-blossom concoction, perhaps best articulates how scents are able to conjure memories we often don’t even realise are stored away. Fragrances have the capacity to encase long-held memories; even just a whiff of an aroma can be enough to awaken recollections from even decades ago, with people or places from our pasts.
The science behind this extraordinary connection helps us to understand why scents and memories are so intertwined. Smells are processed by the olfactory bulb in the brain, and then travel to the limbic system, where emotion and memory are also stored. This explains why smell and memory are so closely related, as they are essentially held together as one in the brain. The sense of smell also fully develops in children before sight does, which is why aromas from childhood often unlock memories and can shape which fragrances we like and dislike throughout our lifetimes. Our sense of taste is also deeply affected by smell, as a lot of what we think we experience as flavour is actually the smell that comes from a food or drink. If you’ve never realised this before, try a sip of black coffee and hold your nose, and you’ll realise how much ‘flavour’ comes from the scent of the roasted beans! Smells therefore not only affect our sense of taste but are key to understanding our nostalgia for foods from childhood, and our culinary palate as we grow up.
Olfactive memory is now being harnessed by brands in order to develop their relationship with clients. Dawn Goldworm, who helped to develop fragrances for Valentino and Lady Gaga, has launched a new venture that combines her passion for fragrance with the power of olfactive memory: olfactive branding. Her company 12.29 was launched to include scent as a part of brand identity. She works with companies to create a signature scent that is used throughout the brand to portray its identity through aroma. The consumer is then able to associate a certain smell with the company, which means that olfactive memory is harnessed to define the brand in a sensory way and maintain consumer loyalty. Goldworm’s latest creation for Cadillac cars is called ‘Dare Greatly’. The custom fragrance combines coffee, dark leather, amber, fresh sage, cedar wood and musk in order to portray the brand’s new image of a modern luxury company, through the sense of smell. This fragrance is then used in their cars, showrooms, headquarters and auto shows so that it becomes synonymous with them and helps to unify all aspects and regions of Cadillac through one aroma. Goldworm has essentially updated the ‘Proust Effect’; instead of evoking childhood or personal memories through smell, she has managed to incorporate our ‘involuntary memory’ into branding, which marks an exciting innovation and potentially a new era for the power of scents!
Our olfactive memories are powerful parts of our being and hold the key to an often-forgotten myriad of memories. As we continue to meet new people, try new foods and discover new aromas, our olfactive memories act like a treasure chest, storing away a lifetime of experiences to be enjoyed with the whiff of an old, familiar scent! Perhaps these memories will expand from the personal to the commercial and include brands and companies; maybe even the next Marcel Proust will write a novel in which the protagonist inhales the aromas from a lifetime ago… and is brought back to their first Cadillac showroom!