When I’m missing my grandfather a little more than usual, I have a quick fix that brings him back to me almost immediately: I go to the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market and stick my nose in a bunch of fresh basil. Right away, I’m transported back to my grandpa’s backyard garden, where I’m tending to the bright green plant alongside him.
Losing a loved one makes us look back on special memories from the past — they help us cope, heal and find peace. And while we can't reconnect in a tangible way, there are subtle signs of a person’s presence that are just as strong.
Our sense of smell, in particular, is one of the most impactful ways we hold memories. Most of us could walk by a stranger on the street and immediately think of a family member who wore a similar perfume scent. Or maybe the smell of a meal in a restaurant takes us back to a holiday dinner shared with them.
All of these sensory memories are real and valid, but I most associate with the ones involving food. Cooking and enjoying meals around the table with my family and friends has always been the language I understood best. It's the reason I associate the smells around me as signs from those who have passed — like with my grandpa and basil.
According to science, smells actually can trigger these feelings, but it has less to do with your nose and more to do with your brain. “The answer is likely due to brain anatomy,” Lions Talk Science explains. Simply put, there are special little areas in our brain that are triggered by emotion and memory. These are different from the areas that are triggered by other senses — sight, sound and touch. And since there’s a whole designated area for feelings, it makes sense they’re as strong and real as the sensory triggers that happen when you look at a pretty painting.
It works the same way with smells that deal specifically with food. “Many of the hormones that regulate appetite, digestion and eating behavior also have receptors in the hippocampus,” John S. Allen wrote in The Omnivorous Mind . “Finding food is so important to survival that it is clear that the hippocampus is primed to form memories about and around food.”
This explains my personal experience with basil — and maybe yours with chocolate chip cookies or some other homemade comfort food from childhood. Our everyday experiences, though, are a lot less scientific and much more emotional and heartfelt. One little whiff of a delicious something-or-other, and it’s like we’re reliving a scene over again — only this time, without that special someone next to us. These moments are not arbitrary. These sweet smell memories could very well be a loved one — like my grandpa — passing by to say bon appetit.