One of the little pleasures of parenthood is the sudden surfaces of memories from deep within the body. Sometimes, when my kids were younger and I was trying to ease a snug shirt over a noggin, I’d flash back to how it felt when my own mother tried to help me out of a too-tight shirt. I’ve noticed, too, that Playdoh throws me back to my own childhood whenever I get a whiff of it.
Smell, it turns out, isn’t just the most potent trigger of nostalgia – an experience I’ll be you’ve noted too. The types of smells that short-circuit time are also generationally and geographically specific, according to neurologist Alan Hirsch:
We’ve also looked at geographic distributions of olfactory evoked nostalgia. While baked goods are number one, people from the East coast describe the smell of flowers as making them nostalgic for childhood. In the South it was the smell of fresh air, and in the Midwest it was the smell of farm animals. On the West coast it was the smell of meat cooking or meat barbequing. It also depends on when you were born. For people born from 1900 to 1930, natural smells made them nostalgic for their childhood—trees, horses, hay, pine, that sort of thing. People born from 1930 to 1980 were more likely to describe artificial smells that make them nostalgic for childhood—Playdoh, Pez, Sweet Tarts, Vapo rub, jet fuel.
Jet fuel? Geez, were these folks the spawn of Tom Hanks’s character in The Terminal?
For me, it’s not only Playdoh that sends me back. I used to hide in our lilac bushes in front of the house in North Dakota. Another Dakotan association, hay – but also freshly cut grass – gives me the same feeling of transport through time, though cut grass also reminds me of band practice in college. As for Pez, the smell leaves me untouched, but the act of stuffing Pez into their dispenser does evoke a body memory.
What about you? What smell or other trigger puts you right back in your childhood?
Weirdly, the mild scent of petunias also makes me feel nostalgic, but for what? They weren’t a major feature of my childhood. These I photographed behind my house in Ohio a couple of weeks ago; they’re mixed in with flowering (non-edible) sage.