Memories are fascinating. How do they work? In asking myself this question it became clear that I didn’t have the foggiest idea. I thought it was sort of like a hard drive where your brain would accept sensory input and then some sort of fancy synapse thing happened and, voila!, memory. Turns out that while this is a gross oversimplification it’s not actually that far off. There’s a lot that goes into encoding, storing, and retrieving a memory, and the science behind it will blow your mind (multiple times if you can remember it all). One thing the big foreheads in the science labs found out was that for the vast majority of people, their brain decides if it’s important enough to be worthy of remembering and if so it encodes and stores it for future reference.
For those in the memory game, they talk about building a Memory Palace; a visual story around what you want to remember, and the more absurd the better. Absurdity is memorable! This is likely also one of the reasons our memories are extremely fallible. Our brains don’t necessarily pick up on the details that are actually important. That said, there are some aspects of our day-to-day lives that are surefire memory triggers: songs, smells, and foods. I’d be willing to bet that these triggers factor more into whether or not you remember something than how “significant” the event is. Think about all the, “Where were you when…” moments that are supposed to be significant and then analyze what you actually remember about the event. I’m willing to bet that the other sensory details that were happening at the time are what’s driving the memory.
Songs, smells, and foods.
I know tonnes of people who have memories triggered by music and I am no exception to that. Here are just a few of the hundreds of songs that invoke a strong, specific memory for me:
- Bootsauce, Everyone’s a Winner:
- I spent eight hours on a bus with a bunch of teenagers travelling from Toronto to Killington, Vermont for an epic ski trip. This song was played more than any other.
- Angels and Airwaves, The Adventure:
- When my wife was pregnant with our second child I worked 45 minutes from home. When I got the call that she was in labour I put the pedal to the metal and hauled ass home. When I was a few minutes out this song started playing. The lyric “Life’s waiting to begin” hung in the air as I pulled into the driveway.
- U2, any song off the Joshua Tree album:
- I have lots of memories of this album but one, in particular, comes to mind when I hear any song off this album and that’s the craft hut at my old summer camp. I wandered in one day and the final riff from The Edge’s guitar on the opening track of Joshua Tree was playing and when track two stared I began to sing along, quietly, as I made my craft. A few of the girls from Cabin 2 started to sing as well, and soon it turned into a full-blown singalong. We spent the rest of the hour singing and crafting with that album playing. In fact, I can’t recall a single piece of conversation that happened in the hour I was there. I’m sure there must have been some, but it sure didn’t feel like it. It was just me, ten girls from cabin 2, a couple of counsellors, and U2. Thirty years later I had the privilege of taking my daughter to see the band play the album in its entirety.
As someone with a boatload of seasonal allergies who is scent sensitive (you know, “scentsitive”. I’ll see myself out.) I find my olfactory system triggers memory more often than anything else. In fact, I can even think of an instance where someone once described something to me and associated the smell of instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal with it and now I can’t smell brown sugar without that visual coming to mind. A few other notable smellmories:
- At some point in my childhood, my mom planted a lilac bush in the backyard and since we didn’t have air conditioning the windows were often open. In spite of my severe seasonal allergies I never really minded the smell. Lilacs remind me of home.
- Fresh-baked tea biscuits
- My father’s mother always struck me as being very proper. She never swore like my mum’s mum and she never let me win at cards or crokinole. Whenever we’d visit she’d make tea and biscuits and then she’d read my tea leaves.
- My first experience with smelling the Devil’s Lettuce was at the Canadian university football championships, the Vanier Cup, which at the time was played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. My dad and his friend took my friend and I and we were way up in the bleachers and all the university students around us were smoking it. Not long after I went to my first concert, The Rolling Stones at Skydome in 1989, and while I was not accompanied by any adults, all the adults around me were getting high!
And then there are foods. These are often a combination of sight, taste, and smell for me, though if I had to divide it up I’d say that sight ranks lowest, followed by smell, with taste at the top. Maybe it’s because food incorporates so many of the senses (all of them, if you’re fortunate enough to experience them all to begin with), but for me, this one paints the most vivid picture. Off the top of my head:
- This one is funny because it brings me back to the time when there was a salad made, I won’t say by who, and instead of whatever was supposed to be the base for the salad cilantro was used instead. After everyone had a bite it was determined that a grave mistake had been made and the salad was removed from the table.
- I used to work as a busboy for this banquet hall / private club and once a month was Italian Night. Around 400 people would pack the large hall and a dozen old Italian ladies would take over the kitchen. Normally we’d have our own kitchen staff but not on Italian Night. The smell of the lasagnas cooking in the giant 3′ x 3′ metal pans was amazing. All the hall staff would get to eat once we’d served all the guests and it was absolutely scrumptious. Of course, all the busboys had to clean up so it wasn’t 100% enjoyable, but it was definitely worth it.
- I was going on my first plane ride, alone, to visit my grandparents in Florida and at the airport, I was nervous and nauseous. Back then you could get farther in without a boarding pass and my mum was with me and she went and bought me a grapefruit juice. She said it would calm me down and settle my stomach. Of course, she was just making that up and hoping that the placebo effect would kick in. It did, of course, and now every time I have a grapefruit juice (or an actual grapefruit) I remember that moment and feel a sense of calm.
What about you? What are some of your biggest memory triggers? Keep it positive, if you can, since the world needs more of those memories being shared these days.