The effect of smell

A memory machine

Our downstairs neighbor is a professional pianist. He owns two pianos (he used to own three) and recently bought an organ. We often hear him practice – classical, honkytonk, pop music strung into medleys. Also, he smokes a lot of pot. The point is, last weekend I was outside reading on our terrace, the neighbor was downstairs practicing and smoking, and between the sunlight, the book in my hands, the smell of cannabis and the sound of Gershwin coming out of the window – it transported me right back to an afternoon when I was twenty-two, reading a book on a grassy lawn a few days before college graduation while a friend nearby smoked a joint, and suddenly I remembered everything intensely: the warm light, music playing from a nearby dormitory, the heady anticipation. I probably haven’t remembered that single instance since it happened, and it all came flooding back.

The power of smell is uncanny. So many scents are triggers for me: chlorine, salt air, cleaning products only used in certain parts of the world. I wrote my first novel about memory, how confusing and influential it can be; looking back, I regret not addressing scent more. Personally, I can’t stand most perfumes. Fabric softener makes me shudder, Dial soap makes me wretch. I’ve complained to restaurant managers for stocking scented hand soaps in their restrooms. After all, smell is a big part of taste – just try eating food with your nose clamped shut – and seeing how I’m constantly lifting my hand near my nostrils, why should my dinner taste like potpourri?

The link between scent and memory has been widely studied. In a 2013 study, researchers were able to connect greater brain activity associated with olfactory stimuli than with visual stimuli. I’m sure I could look at a photograph from college and recall something about the moment, the season, how I felt about somebody or what I was doing that night. But the comparison is colorless. Scent is scar, déjà vu, and time travel all at once. For a brief moment last week, some molecules drifted through the air next to a bit of music, and in a flash I was lying in the grass in rural Maine, my friend was getting high, and I felt again what it meant to be twenty-one, all the nerves, the anticipation, the fear of missing out alongside a sense of contentment. That’s remarkable.


A sidenote: A couple of print galleys of my next book – galleys are early versions produced by publishers to share with critics and industry folk prior to publication – arrived in the mail. The book comes out in June; you can read more about it over here. Anyway, after several years of research and reporting and many, many drafts, holding it in my hands is a thrill! Feeling very fortunate, lucky, and excited. Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram:

A post shared by Rosecrans Baldwin (@rosecransbaldwin)

If you’re interested, the book is available for pre-order at places like Amazon, Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, or your local bookstore. Hold onto your receipts, I’ll do something special for newsletter subscribers down the road. (Note to self: Need to figure that out.)


What is this? A weekly newsletter by Rosecrans Baldwin containing (very) short essays about things he finds beautiful. Rosecrans’s next book, Everything Now, is available for preorder. Most books mentioned in the newsletter are available on a list at Bookshop.org.