Standing in a park in North West London in 2011, I found myself time-and-place-warped 15 years and 6,000 miles, to my parents’ dining room in Greenside, Johannesburg. Every weekend of my childhood and beyond, if you came into the house, my father would be sitting on a dining room chair, working on his latest painting. The smell of oil paint and turpentine brought that image to me, and with it a flood of memories of my father and, absurdly, all sorts of long-forgotten details of my childhood home: the cool, smooth feel of the granite windowsills and the curly burglar bars, the taste of my mother’s Beef Stroganoff, and the wonderful 80s corduroy couch, which, after all these years, still holds the title of Official Best Sofa to Have a Nap on Ever.
The painter and the other visitors to the park must have thought I was barking: a grown woman following a toddler around and crying big tears, but to be honest, no one was more surprised than I. I hadn’t been thinking about my father, about South Africa, even about the past. But all it took was one whiff of paint smell and everything changed. I experienced a profound emotional reaction, much more powerful than I would have had if someone had rung me up and said, “Remember your dad painting?” or if I’d seen a photo of our old dining room. And I wasn’t quite sure why.
So I asked my friend Dr Catherine Loveday . It’s immensely convenient having a friend who is a cognitive neuroscientist when these questions arise. I’ll paraphrase her explanation, and I hope she’ll forgive me for any errors I make: she did explain it to me on the balcony at a very loud party when I’d had a few glasses of wine.
The human brain handles sensory information in two different ways. Apparently sight, hearing, touch and taste feed into a part of the brain called the Thalamus, a sort of multi-media centre which processes the information and allocates it to the right bits of the brain. Smell goes to the Thalamus too, but it also feeds straight into the emotional and memory part of the brain, triggering a more instant and unthinking reaction. This, of course, dates back to our more dangerous past, when we were by no means the top of the food chain. If you caught a whiff of meaty halitosis and fur, you needed to be off and up a tree before you had time to muse about whether or not it was a sabre tooth tiger.
We may not need it to survive anymore, but smell still has the power to evoke memory powerfully, and to arouse intense emotional response. Don’t believe me? Go and sniff a baby’s head. Wander through the perfume section of a department store and spray a squirt of something an old lover used to wear. Smell some flowers. I know that every time I smell jasmine,
I find myself back at high school. Every spring, we’d all pluck sprigs off the jasmine bush in the quad and put them in the house buttons on our gymslips so we could sniff them walking between classes. The smell of bus diesel in the rain takes me back to my first visit to London when I was five. If I’m walking through a crowded station and I catch a trace of CKOne, my heart leaps and I look around for my husband. It’s the aftershave he wore on our first few dates. He still wears it today, but the smell of it takes me back to those crazy, sleepless days and nights when we fell in love.
Cath also told me that the parts of our brain that handle smell and the memory centre are in such close proximity that Alzheimer’s patients often lose their sense of smell as they lose their memories. That made me very sad for those who suffer that terrible loss, but immensely grateful that I still have most of my marbles and the ability to smell and remember. In a funny way, as long as I still have turpentine and oil paint, I still have my crazy, wonderful, difficult father with me.