The Nostalgia of Smell

There’s a large body of scientific study that proves without a doubt that the sense of smell is a powerful trigger of nostalgic thoughts. They even have a name for it- Proust Phenomenon. I hope they didn’t spend much money on that research because just about every living person can attest to how smells affect our memories.

Even unpleasant odors can create positive memories. When I was a child, we visited Wildwood, New Jersey, each summer. Just outside this great resort town was a fish fertilizer factory, and as you drove closer, the smell was awful. We would complain, but in our little heads and those of our parents, that odor triggered thoughts of the fun times we had and would have again on the beach and the boardwalk. That seems to be the way nostalgic thoughts work. You remember the positive, not so much the negative.

When you smell the odor the rain makes when it hits hot asphalt or concrete, what memories does it evoke? I grew up in the inner-city of Philadelphia, and for me, it reminds me of sitting under cover playing cards with my friends or playing stickball after a cooling rainstorm. There is a name for this odor. It’s called Petrichor. It also applies to cold rain-hitting soil, so if you grew up in a more rural setting, you still benefit from the memories Petrichor creates.

Common smells seem to work best, I assume, because they were more present as we grew up. For instance, I love the smell of fresh ground coffee. It makes me think of my grandmother, and the times I went shopping with her at the A&P store. Back then, you picked out your coffee and ground it yourself. The smell was delightful, and the memory it created for me was even better.

How about you? Do smells bring back your memories? Is it the smell of Mercurochrome your mom used on the cuts and abrasions you had as a child? Or perhaps it is a particular food that reminds you of past holidays. Let your nose and your mind roam to find those sweet memories.

********* You can read more about smells in my book Philly Tales 1940s -1970s (Chapter 8), as well as 45 other stories about growing up in Philadelphia. Available on Amazon at 

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