How do I remember smells from fragrances

How fragrances take us back in time

Last night in the pizzeria. My friend, the stylish photographer, and I agreed: A head odor - in the cinema, on the tram, at the organic market - is pure mental torture. A case for the shampoo police. With one exception: the unwashed hair of our early childhood loves.

"She was my best friend's sister," the photographer recalled. "Her locks smelled of the gym, fabric softener, and bazooka gum." In my case: "The mysterious guy from 7b. His chin-length strands, a mixture of motorcycle jacket, Muratti and patchouli." - The photographer looked meaningfully out of the window: "Basically, you are always looking for this moment."

Erotic fixations?

Maybe. In any case, significant memory blooms. Highly emotional odor compositions that have been stored forever in our brain, to be precise: in the limbic system.

The sense of smell is located in the oldest part of the brain in evolutionary terms. That is why smells are the strongest trigger for involuntary memories. The nose is also the closest to the area where sensory information is analyzed.

This return can happen at the dentist, in the Aida, on a green meadow, so anywhere: fragrance particles that throw a melody from bygone times onto the turntable.

The invisible thing that excites our nerve cells to the max. You don't know how and why. Is just banned. Which brings us to the technical term for this sudden journey through time: the Proust effect.

Breakfast with consequences

A Sunday morning in the early 20th century on a cold winter day in France. A young man bites into a madeleine (small sand cake in the shape of a scallop) that he has just dipped in his tea.

"The second that this sip of tea mixed with the pastry crumbs touched my palate, I winced and was spellbound by something unusual that was happening inside of me." - The first-person narrator is transported back to the village of his childhood through the scent of the biscuits. All these years, Combray, the aunts, the unloved Mr. Swann, suddenly it's alive again, very close.

The breakfast scene is at the beginning of Marcel Proust's 5200-page work In Search of Lost Time - and with it the French writer wrote what is probably the most momentous memory experience in literary history.

Since then, science has called sudden trips into the past provoked by smells the "Proust effect" (sometimes also the "Madeleine phenomenon").

Fat electrician

The perfume industry has specialized in reproducing great emotions for centuries. In the meantime, their range of goods has been refined in an almost frightening way, thanks in part to new chemistry. Because smells can now be exactly replicated in laboratories, there are flacons whose contents flow into the nose like used dollar bills, like a medium-ripe southern Turkish fig or a car tire in the April sun - if anyone needs that.

The great artists of the profession are not interested in flat chords, but in stories: Fat Electrician is the name of the cheeky mixture of chestnut, vetivier and bisabol myrrh that is one of the most successful creations by Etat Libre d'Orange counts.

Etienne Swart, head of the cool and modern brand, was thinking of a "sexy outdoorsman from Texas who didn't make it on the hard asphalt of the city and now works as a fat electrician".

Jean-Claude Ellena, longtime head perfumer at Hermès, also knows: "A fragrance can be hard, soft, dry, flat, cutting, silky, piquant, rough, fragile or oily ... I don't create astonishment by being Reproduce the smell of tea, flour or fruit unchanged.

You have to reinterpret the individual substances as symbols, give them a new meaning. "- In the world of Ellena, the scent of green tea stands for Japan, the flour for the skin, the mango for Egypt. Later, in the shop, the one decides Consumers for those top, heart and base notes that address the sentimental memory space in the brain the most.

Olfactory illusions

You can still remember the great classics. But what do they tell you today? The photographer and I want to experience the Proust effect on ourselves. We go to "la recherche du temps perdu" - in our case not by enjoying Madeleines, but by strolling through the sales hall of a large perfumery.

Here they are, the aqua scents from Guerlain - and what flows towards you in the spray is like it was back then for me, this breakfast in a Spanish luxury hotel, with pink grapefruit, champagne and buttery croissants. In Shalimar, the photographer recognizes the hysterical mothers of his school friends, UN City offices and 70ies safari shops.

Black Pepper sprayed on by Comme des Garçons and I'm walking on wet asphalt in Paris at midnight. Joy from Dior resurrects the mean friend from the ballet class. The Montblanc bottle transports the photographer back to a New York paper shop. Y from YSL Homme in my nose, he's already there, the conceited bouncer from the time when clubs were still called disco.

The photographer has now sprayed This is Love by Zadig & Voltaire on a test strip. And the concentrated Insta-Girlie power rolls over him, with training pants and kilometer-long eyelashes.

Eau de Citron Noir from Hermès reminds us of our fathers who still heard their Schubert symphonies on records. And with Sunday Cologne from Byredo, Sundays are finally back to the way they once were: secret kissing on white linen bed linen while outside in the garden everything is glowing and blooming.


Yes, feelings are great - and in most cases based on nothing but chains of association, memory and fantasy. Because everything is related to everything, not just in quantum physics. "The parts of the world are all so related and so interlinked that I consider it impossible to recognize one or the other without the whole," noted the French Renaissance philosopher Blaise Pascal in his mind.

So it's not about smells, but about conditions. This is also emphasized by the chemist and former perfume critic of New York Times, Luca Turin. For him, Cuir de Russie from Chanel is one of the best leather fragrances ever: "He will always remind me of the inside of my stepfather's 1954 Bentley, in which, as a little boy, I sat alone in the back seat and was allowed to play on the fold-out mahogany table. "

A suitcase full of memories. So must perfume. Because sensual pleasure is a choice of the mind. "How people rate a smell depends very much on whether it is associated with pleasant or unpleasant situations," writes the Austrian psychologist and author Werner Stangl. "It's about learned associations, which is why generally unpleasant smells such as sweat, chlorine, burnt food or spinning car tires can trigger positive feelings."

As I said, a full-grown human head shouldn't smell of anything except a good scent or shampoo. And nobody describes the big picture better than Marcel Proust: "An hour is not just an hour, but a vessel filled with smells, sounds and plans." (Ela Angerer, RONDO exclusive, July 16, 2020)