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Sensory Overload


I was making my sandwiches last night before I went to bed. I elected to make traditional ham sandwiches consisting of bread, margarine and ham. Nothing special there. But as soon as I opened the ham it brought back a flood of memories from perhaps 10 years ago and it made me smile. Allow me to explain…

I lived with my parents back then and we used to have a black and white cat that we – for reasons I can no longer recall – called Rimmer. Anyway, he was a pretty cool cat. In fact he came to us as a stray, choosing us instead of the other way around. He just appeared in our garden one night and did so for the following couple of nights before venturing inside our house. On the first night that he did come in he plonked himself on my lap and promptly fell asleep. He woke up soon after and, being a bit confused, hissed at me and ran outside probably expecting us to shout at him. But we didn’t and he soon became a much-loved member of our family. Anyway, he had a lovely temperament and was pretty smart for a cat. We used to give him pieces of ham as a treat and when I opened the packet last night I was transported back in time. Rimmer was brushing himself against my leg, I was about to tear the ham into small pieces and feed them to the beast. I could almost feel his whiskers touching my fingers as I fed him.

The memory is entirely personal to me and, although I’ve explained it to you, I could never put across how it actually feels. And that’s the cool thing about smell-induced memories. If I sat down and just tried to remember feeding Rimmer I’d just get pictures. But the smell triggers deeper memories so that I get feelings, sights and sounds that make it seem almost real. I’ve mentioned before that music can trigger memories but it doesn’t have anything like the power of smell.

You may think it’s a bit pathetic and sentimental (and if so, you’re probably right – especially you R) but I still have a jumper I stole from my girlfriend of about 10 years ago sitting on the top shelf of my wardrobe. It’s a bit torn and well-worn (as it was the day I ‘borrowed’ it) but, amazingly, it still retains the same smell it did all those years ago. I never washed it (come on, I never wear it), but if I smell it now it takes me back to being a teenager again and to a different place and a different me. I’m not trying to live in the past, but it’s fun to dip in and out of it from time to time. I also have one of my mother’s jumpers that I’ll never wash and that provides me with some comfort.

I find that smell-induced memories tend to evoke positive memories and they make me smile, which is why I hold on to things like jumpers. Although sound-induced ones often have the opposite effect. Maybe it’s because of my fondness for depressing music that reminds me of depressing things…

I’ll end by mentioning one of my favourite smell-induced memories. I’ll paint the picture that triggers it. It’s a sunny day, the ground is hot and if you were to walk barefoot you’d be hopping around as the pavement is boiling. Clouds appear overhead and it starts to rain. As the rain hits the hot pavement there is a particular smell of, eh, wet pavement. But when it hits my nostrils I am taken back to a summer’s day when I was about 6 or 7. My brother and I are playing in our garden and it’s a red-hot August afternoon. My father has set up a paddling pool on the lawn and we are jumping in and out of it, pretending we’re swimming in the sea. We’re playing on the patio when it starts to rain and we go back into the pool to stay out of it (kids aren’t too smart you see). It’s only a small shower and the sun keeps shining. As I look up I see a rainbow overhead. And it’s beautiful. And I’m smiling. As I am whenever it rains on a hot day and I’m outside.

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

7 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Weren’t we discussing the “first rain for a while” smell not to long ago?? I think the most nostalgic smell for me has to be that of freshly mown hay grass. It’s different to lawn clippings or even silage grass (which is short and bladey as opposed to longer and more mature for hay). Everyone around the Ribble Valley used to make hay in the 70’s and early 80’s and there was a certain buzz about the place when it happened. People from all over the area came to pitch in and help each other before the rain came and turned it all into sludge. All sounds a bit like a scene from Witness, where the Amish all put that barn up, but it was a little less abnormal than that. Just scratching each other’s backs really. So one day June or july I’d be cycling back from Clitheroe after school and well before you saw the field being mown, you’d get that smell and instantly know that the fun was about to begin. It’s one of the things you miss when you move away to a city.


  2. Just think, when you get old and retire to the countryside you’ll hear a rattly old diesel driving past and the intoxicating smell will remind you of your days living in the city…


  3. Fantastic post honey and oh so true… I have a coat and an old Chanel No 5 bottle from my Nana… smelling her is so much more evocative than any other type of memory trigger xxx


  4. For me it’s the smell of a eucalypt forest – that and the sound of the trees. Driving through Marin county a couple of years ago I stopped for a break and stepped out of the car and was overwhelmed. Transported to my special bit of forest back home (oz). Cockatoo’s screaming as they fly through the trees, and that special mix of oxygen and tree smells.


  5. I have a teddy, well he is actually a dog. Sweep from “The Sooty show” anyway I have had him 31 years and although, he has no eyes and no fur basically he is just a non-furry toy, I still have him beside my bed so I can smell him. If I need comfort or just to reminisce I smell him. He smells warm and musky but I instantly feel calm and safe. Even thinking about it makes me want to go and get him. x


  6. i have often tried to describe these overwhelming waves of nostalgia that overtake me when i come across a certain smell. most people just look at me as though i’m crazy. my favorite memory-inducing smell is right after it rains on a humid early summer day. the smell of grass, soil, and water… it takes me back to when i was 5 & 6 years old, playing freeze tag in the yard with all the neighborhood kids.


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