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What’s that smell? Researchers sniff out the link between scents and memories

What’s that smell? Researchers sniff out the link between scents and memories

Sebastian Groes, Professor in English Literature blogs about his fascination between the link of smell and the childhood memories that are attached to certain scents.

Late November, when the world’s radical transformation is reaching its pinnacle, this is a period that brings me back to my early years.  It is the peculiar, mysterious dampness that comes with sweeping rainstorms and early morning mist, and the musty smell of decaying leaves that brings me back to tramping through woodlands.

As a Dutch guy, it also brings me back to the ‘Sinterklaas’ festivities – the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus.  Especially the smell of ‘pepernoten’, a small crunchy cookie that Sinterklaas scatters across the school floor before he tells you you’ve been a good boy – or not.  It contains cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander seeds, aniseed, ginger, pepper and cardamom – exotic ingredients whose aroma, every year, takes me back to when I was seven years old.

It’s always cringe-worthy to see the look on people’s face when I say that I’m researching smell.  In most cases, people grin and have a hard time to prevent themselves from laughing out loud.  Just the mention of the word ‘smell’ makes people smirk - Smell has got a bad rep, it makes people uncomfortable; they get funny about it. Smell is usually a bad smell that needs to be covered up.

Olfaction is a silent, invisible sense. We live in an age where the visual sense dominates. But I think smell is getting more recognition.  The Covid-19 pandemic has much to do with this: anosmia (the loss of smell) is something that has drawn attention to the importance of smell for your ability to taste food, for instance.  The influential millennial writer Michaela Coel writes in her book ‘Misfits’ about her own experience of anosmia. She writes: “I cannot smell smoke in the event of a fire anymore, and expiration dates on food items are something to worship rather than test one’s fate on, but losing one sense enabled me to enhance my use of others: listening, looking and feeling everything and everyone around me with more attention than before.” This underscores the importance of smell for health, well-being and our sense of identity.

A couple of autumns ago, my colleagues Tom Mercer (Psychology) Rob Francis (Creative Writing Lecturer) and I were doing smell experiments in the Black Country.  We found the specific smells that belong to the West Midlands and the memories associated with them. 

On Thursday 14 October, myself and Dr Tom Mercer will outline some of our findings of how smell and associated childhood memories work at the 2021 Fragrance Forum.

We set this down in the book Smell, Memory and Literature in the Black Country. The book promotes smell awareness and hopes to contribute to give local people a different way of looking at their world. The book aims to stimulate a new sense of pride in the Black Country and contribute to the regeneration of the region. 

To order the book visit
Don’t forget to include your exclusive 20% discount code: Zgdt8KSmend5rS7



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