Smells From Your Childhood — How Memory, Emotions, and Scent Are Closely Linked in Our Brains

Kelsey L.O.
4 min readJan 15, 2022

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I struggle with a hazy memory whenever I try to remember something from long ago, especially my younger years. Visual scenes are mostly forgotten, and words that were said are jumbled. At best, the scenes from my childhood play in my head with an opaque overlay and at a hacky buffering speed. The wonderful things I would like to relive aren't easy to access in the visual or auditory sense.

The two things I can vividly recall without fail, though, are smells and the emotions associated with them.

The aroma of the musky cologne my dad used to wear, the warm scent of my mom's powder puff, the pepperminty body wash sitting on our shower shelf, the plasticky smell of a new Barbie freshly rescued out of her box at Christmas, and the rubber garden hose in the backyard on a sweltering Texas summer day. All scents that bring forth a sense of security, love, and youthful bright-eyed wonder.

Pondering upon my own childhood and what scents I imagine when I think of it, I decided to ask my parents about their own experience. What did they smell when they were growing up in the '50s and '60s? Which emotions did they associate with those smells? Their answers gave me such tangible access to their past and I got to view them in a new light.

For my dad, it's the fragrance of his mom's perfume whenever he laid in her lap as she read to him at night, fresh tortillas being made at his grandmother Carmen's house, and hot dried sweat from a day well spent playing outside with neighborhood friends. And later in his adolescent years as a seventeen-year-old-, the smell of jet fuel and earthy pungency of the jungle in Vietnam. Positive and less-positive memories that conjured a sense of comfort, joy, and suspense.

My mom, on the other hand, remembers the smell of coffee brewing on the stove at her grandparents' farm, the sweet ripe peaches growing on the tree outside, the leathery scent of her horse Queenston Shadow, and that time she accidentally burned down her brother's clubhouse while he was away at school (don't worry, no one was hurt). Now, as an adult, whenever she experiences fear, she still recalls the odor of the burnt matches and fire from that day many years ago.

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Kelsey L.O.

Texan/Norwegian = Texawegian. Forever dwelling in the realm of possibility and curiosity. Editor of The Lucid Prose. Find me on instagram: @hellokelseylo