The Sweet Scent of Nostalgia

Daniel Kessel shares how a familiar smell jogged his memory at the perfect moment.

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Posted in , Nov 17, 2014

Guideposts: Scent memory nostalgia for Brooklyn

Today’s guest blogger is assistant editor Daniel Kessel.

Have you ever noticed how certain smells bring up vivid memories from the past?

It’s a widely studied topic. According to Brown University neuroscientist Rachel Herz, the same part of the brain that forms new memories is also responsible for registering smell–that’s why the link between scents, emotions and memories is so strong.  But as I recently learned, there may be more to this phenomenon than science alone can explain.

Lady the cat plays with word game tilesLast Tuesday after work, I pushed my way into a crowded subway car, tired from the busy day. I’d left the office around 6 PM, and with my 30-minute commute home ahead of me, I couldn’t wait to get back to my apartment and relax. I put my headphones in and held on as the train moved forward.

Within moments, a strangely familiar smell filled the subway car–a blend of wood, paint and flowers. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why I recognized it. I looked around, expecting to find the source.

Someone holding a can of paint? A bouquet of roses? Both at the same time? But I saw nothing out of the ordinary. As I took the scent in, though, something clicked–and I felt overwhelmed with the memory of a place I used to live.

It was my first apartment after college, a three-bedroom, second-floor walkup in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I shared the apartment with my friends Amanda and Joe, plus Joe’s cat, Lady.

The four of us became like a family–Amanda and I both had our first jobs, and Joe was finishing his final year of school. (Lady held down the fort.) We were all “words” people, so almost every weeknight we’d meet back at home, listen to music probably a little too loud and play word games.

That whiff on the subway brought me back. I closed my eyes and remembered the day we first moved into the apartment, when the walls were bare with a fresh coat of white paint and the hardwood floors were clear of furniture.

The aroma in the subway smelled just like our brand-new apartment–wood, paint, and a hint of something floral. We had to give the apartment up once our year-long lease ended, but I still missed living there with Amanda, Joe and of course, Lady.

The next day at work, during my lunch break, I logged into my Facebook account...and was surprised to read the first item on my news feed. “HELLO I MISS YOU JOE,” Amanda had written on Joe’s wall.

She linked to one of the songs Joe used to blast from our apartment’s speakers. Like me, they both missed our place and the good times we’d had there. I quickly “liked” the whole thread and started pitching into the nostalgia with some comments of my own.

I lingered over the post for a moment, reading our comment thread one more time. That’s when I noticed it—the timestamp of Amanda and Joe’s initial conversation: Tuesday at 6:24 PM. The same time I’d been down in the subway, overcome by a smell that reminded me of our Sunset Park home.

How about you? Has a mysterious scent ever jump-started your memory? Or do you have any recollections about a perfect home you’ve lived in? Share your stories with us!

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