The Link Between Memory and the Senses

What’s your favourite piece of music? When did you first hear it? How did you feel at the time?

It’s almost impossible to hear an old favourite without remembering the most meaningful times we heard it. Music has an almost unique power to capture an emotional state, and for most of us there are pieces of music, identifiable sometimes by their very first note, which bring memories and emotions flooding back. Scientists believe that the metaphor of a film soundtrack is one of the most helpful ways of explaining why this occurs: an experience which includes a recognisable auditory backdrop becomes inextricably connected with this ‘soundtrack.’ The brain understands that the piece of music is part of a scene, which – more often that not – it suddenly finds it can rebuild with relative ease.

It’s not just music which has this power. Any meaningful recording has the same capacity to open that door, and the extent to which these pieces of the past can return to our present depends not on their accuracy or detail but simply their personal significance. We might not even recognise ourselves in an old photograph, but a tatty scrap of paper on which a phone number was hastily scrawled decades before could lead us into an afternoon of reflection.

Oddly enough, the sense we rely on the most (sight) is the least faithfully recorded. Scientists estimate that we remember as little as 5% of what we see, but as much as 35% of what we smell. This is because our sense of smell is the most closely connected with our hippocampus, the part of our brain which stores memories. Our sense of smell is also intimately associated with our limbic system, which also aids both the formation of memories and the identification of smells. With this system influencing all of the elements of the process so closely, it’s no surprise that in a recent study 83% of participants confirmed that certain smells brought back happy memories.

It’s usually coincidence which brings these memory cues to our awareness, but it’s quite possible to deliberately harness the memory-enhancing power of sensory stimuli. Oddly enough, most people are incapable of reproducing the memory of a smell (or flavour) in their minds without training. A perfumer or chef might be able to close their eyes and recall these stimuli, but most people are simply not conditioned to pay more than incidental attention to them. Everyone has the potential to recall these more obscure stimuli, and simply deliberately meditating on odours when they’re experienced is a fantastic way of training the brain’s recall ability. This is an excellent way of enhancing memory in general, as it makes the recordings we capture far deeper and more emotive by introducing to them an element which is intimately entangled with both memory and emotion in a way that sight and even hearing are not.

But there are simpler ways use the senses to access memories without any training or practice. One of the best is to literally reproduce a memory as best we can. Drawing and painting from memory recapitulates the memory which is being worked on, often encouraging the brain to dig deeper and flesh out the scene with details we may otherwise have forgotten entirely. Writing poetry about a memory can be even more helpful as it engages multiple senses and allows us to at least mention details like sound and smell, both more powerful than sight in aiding memory.

One of the most popular and effective ways of harnessing the power of the senses to aid recall is to start putting together a multimedia representation of an important memory, perhaps starting simply with a title. “Canada, 1973” might not get us anywhere in itself, but we tend to find that even the slightest detail is a crack into which we can insert the jemmy of recall and start levering away. It snowed, but what did the snow smell of? What did the cabin actually look like…? If the fire was here then the sofa must’ve been… right here. One we begin to build out the scene, we suddenly find that – like a jigsaw puzzle – the blank space slowly breaks up into missing pieces, each bordering onto a detail which can be recalled. Once the corners are in place, solving the rest of the puzzle is easy.

Signature offers award-winning memory loss and dementia care.  Find out more here.