Scentsory reprogramming

frozen in time

Most of us know that smell can transport us powerfully back to a memory and the emotions with which it is associated. Because smell can exist only in the present, attaching a memory to a smell is a way of harnessing the selective past to the indiscriminate present. If I cling to the scent of something familiar that is gone, I can convince myself that I’m maintaining a connection to it—akin to being smiled upon by the same moon, but spanning an indefinite period of time beyond a time zone difference.


What, then, if the smell is now gone from the thing that is gone from me? Suppose the person or place that I remember vividly by scent has changed to a new fragrance. Then, truly, all I have left is a memory, which—when it loses its shape and elasticity from overuse—is of little more use than a fantasy. An olfactory tchotchke. A relic.

Confirmation bias

A different scenario. Times may change, but a place may smell the same. This has been true of certain people’s homes that I have visited very infrequently over years or even decades. It’s reassuring, because the scent that I remember signals ways of being that I remember, and I can find my place within that framework. On the other hand, if the framework has in fact changed, I may be slower to get the message because I’m still listening to what my nose had intuited.

New associations with old smells

Some memories, such as those from childhood, are so well-worn that they become ephemeral. They finally reach a state where the sheer act of remembering uses them up for good, and they disappear. So, counterintuitively, preserving them requires deliberately forgetting them and pushing them aside.

The same can be recognized when using a scent to strengthen a memory. A disembodied smell, after all, wants to attach to a new body. Thus, each time I summon the smell, the conjured memory of the past gets diluted with all the other sensory stimuli of the present.

This is quite distressing for anyone holding on to sand from the hourglass. However, it can also be exploited when forgetting is desired. As with habits and interests, replacing an unwanted thing always works better than trying simply to remove it. Re-embodying a scent that previously had negative associations—with an empowering, positive aspect of one’s current reality—may help to decrease its overall emotional effect.

A snippet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 99 to show that sentimental sniffing is no modern vice:
The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath?

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