When I smell cigarettes, I think of my Christmas dinners as a child. Even well into adulthood, a smoky room teleports me back to a more lax era of tobacco enforcement at my parents’ house, when grown-ups would light up obligatory post-turkey cigarettes around the dinner table, and the appetizing aromas of cranberries and stuffing and pine needles would slowly fade into a cloud of tobacco smoke.
It's a smell that triggers a strong feeling of childhood comfort and causes lucid memories that I didn’t even know I had pop back into my consciousness. Fleeting mental images of my uncle taking drags of a cigarette through his nose for cheap laughs or napkins catching fire at the dinner table appear in my mind like turning the pages of an old photo album. Sure, hearing Michael Bolton’s version of “White Christmas” can also elicit the occasional flashback to that same era, but this is something different. It feels less like a retrieval of a long lost memory, and more like a smell from the past retrieving me from the present.
To find deep comfort in the stale, carcinogenic smell of cigarettes might sound bizarre, especially for a child, but it’s hardly unique. The nature of olfactory memories is, by nature, difficult to articulate, though artists, scientists, and fragrance companies have long been trying to understand this mechanism from different perspectives. One thing that is certain, however, is that the holiday season is rife with aromas and flavors like pumpkin spice that are emotional time machines, and that phenomenon doesn’t just help us remember things; it helps people sell things, too.
Cretien van Campen is a psychologist, art historian, and author of The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories, which looks at a phenomenon known as the Proust effect—referring to Marcel Proust’s exploration of memory in his 4,200-page magnum opus In Search of Lost Time—through the lenses of neuropsychology and art. In Proust’s novel, one bite of a tea-soaked madeleine cake is enough for the unnamed narrator to get lost in emotional childhood memories that completely blurs temporal lines.
“The Proust effect is the experience that sensory experience evokes very vivid memories of the past, especially of childhood,” van Campen explains. “The madeleine is of the nature of a taste and smell memory as opposed to a musical or visual memories or touch memories. [...] It’s not just something that you remember, like a shopping list, these are very special memories because they make a very large leap to childhood. Proust was surprised by this and the fact that these memories made him happy, because it’s just a memory. They were emotional, vivid, and very intense and changed his mood. Proust started to think about what the explanation could be and I continued in that path.”
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time.
Of course, studying the Proust effect doesn’t make one immune from experiencing it; “I don’t remember anything from Christmas at my grandparents when I was six or seven years old, but give me a smell or a taste and it can bring back the whole picture immediately,” van Campen recounts. “For me, as a scientist, it’s really something wonderful.”
It’s also wonderful for companies who can capitalize on the nostalgia surrounding holiday foods and their scents by synthesizing that emotional connection to the past.
Jennifer Genson is head of development for Yankee Candle, the company behind aromas such as spiced pumpkin, “cherries on snow,” sugared apple, and, perhaps most notably, “turkey & stuffing.” In a lot of ways, Yankee Candle’s research and development involves understanding the same mechanism explored by Proust more than a century ago, and faithfully recreating some very precise aroma combinations.
“We are trying to build memories for people with our candles,” Genson says. “When we’re thinking about fragrance creation, we are thinking first about what kind of story we want to tell and what emotion it’s going to trigger to our consumer.”
Like Proust, Yankee Candle is seeking to recapture moments that are sometimes buried deep within one’s consciousness and “tell a story,” like their balsam and clove candle which, Genson says, “instantly brings back you in the time of Christmas when you’re opening all the presents under the Christmas tree.” As profound as these sensory moments can be, you are not a snowflake—winter or otherwise—and the basis of this perception is, literally, all in your head.
“Your olfactory receptor and the olfactory neurons that are directly linked to the limbic brain and the limbic system, which shapes memory, emotion, and mood and is why our sense of scent is so powerful and emotive,” Genson explains. “People who are suffering from anosmia and can’t smell anymore, they, most of the time, are depressed because they can’t smell anymore and it affects their memory and their smell and their emotions as well.”
Given these emotional and neurological underpinnings, psychology is the best equipped of the sciences to address these elusive experiences, a challenge that Cretien van Campen embraces fully. “Proust was not a scientist, though he was from a medical family, but the Proust effect was first explored by artists, mainly writers,” says van Campen. “Psychologists started, over the course of the 1950s and 60s to replicate this Proust effect or memory, but it’s very hard to replicate in a laboratory.”
That’s where van Campen’s training as an art historian comes in handy. “Artists, in a way, have more insight into these memories than the laboratory of science; it’s a credit to art. I view art as another way of doing research. It has a lot to do with meaning; these sense memories are very meaningful to people. It’s very hard for the natural sciences to capture meaning, because it’s individual and can change over time; it’s very difficult to predict.”
And while it might be hard for psychologists to predict when meaningful moments will arise in a laboratory setting, Yankee Candle has built an olfactory empire around predicting which aromas will are the most appealing. It’s a process that begins not in the past, but with current market conditions. “The first thing usually we’re looking at is the season,” Genson says. “We are looking at everything relating to trends; it might be food trends, what’s currently up on the market, what chefs are cooking, in order to bring new fragrances, new ideas, and new flavors.”
READ MORE: This Is Your Brain on Pumpkin Spice
So, once a fragrance like, say, spiced pumpkin is deemed marketable, how does Yankee Candle create a pumpkin-spice candle that consumers will want to spend money on? That undertaking begins by collaborating with perfumers who design the smells using what Genson calls “reconstituted chemical raw materials” and natural ingredients. “The perfumer comes back with fragrance proposals and we smell them to evaluate them and make sure they are telling the story we want to tell. And then we do consumer testing to make sure that it’s not something that we actually chose. We ask as many people as possible.”
In other words, a fragrance like “Christmas cookie” has to be specific enough to be recognizable and nostalgia-inducing, but also universal enough to sell to the masses. “We really want people, when they are going to be smelling the fragrance, to capture this moment when they are preparing and cooking Christmas cookies and mixing vanilla, butter, and spices together, so this is a story we want to tell. We have the perfume out to be as close to real smell of the Christmas cookies.”
With a billion dollars in annual sales, Yankee Candles’ success is proof that an emotional story can be told through the mouth and nose, but it’s not the kind of evidence that’s useful to psychologists like Cretien van Campen, who are trying to understand why this is in the first place.
“Smell is a sense to warn us about fire or bad food or poison,” he says. “With the Proust effect, the warning system works but it makes people happy with this very deep feeling. So, what’s the evolutionary function of this happiness and why would you link certain smells back to your childhood? I don’t know at this moment. [laughs] I’ll come up with something later.”
Given what a politically tumultuous and, for many, emotionally challenging year 2017 has been on so many levels, we can, at the very least, be grateful that we have been endowed with the ability to escape reality through our senses, and fully embracing the holidays can facilitate that. Despite the air of mystery around this phenomenon, van Campen does have some helpful advice for those who are seeking out meaningful sense memories this season.
“People always ask, ‘What’s the formula? How can I be happy or have my happy childhood memories?’ There's no formula; the best thing I can tell them is to go to places where you’ve grown up and expose yourself to them. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have these memories, but the chances are bigger because there are more smells and perfumes and sounds of your childhood.”
Me? I’m still holding out for a cigarettes-and-pine-needles scented candle under the Christmas tree this year.