Perfume and memory


I’m close to finishing a bottle of perfume—Mimosa Pour Moi by L’Artisan Parfumeur. It’s light and sweet and sunshiny but, after about nine months of almost daily wear, I’m starting to get a bit bored with it. Lined up to replace it is an old favourite that I know I love—Eau de Rochas, which opens with a sharp lime scent that acts like an olfactory lightning bolt.

It’s true that you shouldn’t try to judge a perfume as soon as you spray it, because the top notes quickly evaporate and give way to the heart of the fragrance, which could be quite different. But I’ve never found a perfume that I wanted to revisit again and again, that didn’t hit me right between the eyes at the first sniff.

The psychology involved in the sense of smell is very interesting. Scent molecules enter the nose and are delivered straight to an area of the limbic system (a ‘primitive’ part of the brain) that processes emotion and memory—and that’s why scents so powerfully evoke the remembrance of feelings and atmospheres. It’s as if emotions dissolve in fragrance, waiting to be released with full force when the perfume stopper is removed.

Last summer, I breathed in the scent of wisteria flowers in a garden and was carried straight back to the Old Vic theatre, to a 1987 performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One, where I sat next to a woman wearing an overpowering fragrance that, at the time, I couldn’t identify. The smell was too strong to be pleasant in itself, but my experience of the play kicked off a sequence of events that led me to become an editor. That smell of wisteria will now always be linked to a feeling of expanding horizons and the knowledge of being on the edge of something life-changing.

Some of the connections that are made between fragrances and emotions are more mysterious, though. I have no idea why the smell of woodsmoke that often lingers on the air in the town where I live is so comforting, or why lily-of-the-valley makes me feel uneasy, or why the aroma of a particular white rose in a National Trust garden made me think immediately of my brother as a child. Perhaps they reflect subconscious memories that will never come to the surface.

I probably won’t be wearing Mimosa Pour Moi after the last few drops from this bottle have faded away, but I wonder what memories will be revived if, in twenty years’ time, I happen to smell it again.

6 responses to “Perfume and memory

  1. Betty McLaughlin

    Very interesting. The shampoo aisle in the store is my memory lane. Once in a blue moon I’ll take a sniff of shampoos that I’ve used at different times in life, and whoosh: I’m immediately back at 6th grade science camp, or styling my big poufy 1980s hair. #Evocative

  2. I think I might now be a follower……….

  3. Interesting post about the power of the nose. I am just reworking my children’s story set in 16th century England and realised I needed to turn up the volume on pongs and whiffs in my opening chapter. Eau de sweat and pie grease seems to be what is required at a public hanging so in it goes…. But how to describe the smell of gunpowder – well that’s another matter….

    • Thanks for commenting, Alison. You’re right – those pongs will be really evocative! You need to find someone who can demonstrate an old flintlock pistol or something, for the gunpowder. I wonder if it’s anything like the smell of a pulled Christmas cracker…?

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