I hadn’t thought about this object for quite some time.
The other I day I was teaching my class while walking about the room with a long, wooden pointer that I sometimes use to highlight important information but mostly enjoy twirling as a prop. There’s something about giving it a few spins that seems to relax any physical tension while simultaneously enabling me to focus my thoughts. On this occasion, I was giving some routine instructions, thinking ahead to how I might best manage the next activity, and absentmindedly spinning my pointer. After a few rotations, I held the long stick still, and in doing so I unwittingly brought the small metal ring fixed to its blunt end to within a centimeter of my nostrils.
For an instant I was suddenly transported from my classroom to another place. It was not so much a detailed location as it was a sort of vague, cerebral space, and dominating this mental plane was the vivid apparition of a gyroscope. I recognized it at once as the cherished childhood possession that my sister had given me, one of a number of gifts that were thoughtfully chosen to improve my overall development. Alas, her attempts to increase my physical activity were unsuccessful, as I never quite got the knack of shooting the basketball, and I simply could not advance more than several bounces on the pogo stick before careening dangerously askew. But the gyroscope occupied my attention for many hours. I would moisten the end of a string on my tongue, delicately thread and load the axle, then set it going with all my strength. I loved watching it stay upright no matter how precarious its perch. The sturdy device had a peculiar smell, a dank and earthy metallic odor, a sort of dull acridity that smelled just like…just like…well, just like the little metal ring on the blunt end of my classroom pointer. I hadn’t thought about my old gyroscope in years, but everything from its shape to its heft in my hand suffused my mind in an instant.
Such is the power of our sense of smell to resurrect latent memories. It’s a universal phenomenon, as immortalized by Marcel Proust in the first volume of Á la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time), in which the narrator’s famous reacquaintance with tea and madeleine cakes unleashes long-forgotten sensations of his youth. Proust personified the senses of taste and smell as patient entities imprinted with our past:
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.
(Proust, M. (1913-27). Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way: Within a Budding Grove. The definitive French Pleiade edition translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Vintage. p. 51.)
Now, I can’t say that I had totally forgotten that gyroscope. In fact, I still have it, stowed away in a cardboard box along with other small mementos. But it is always an arresting experience to have the present interrupted by an involuntary memory triggered by a chance whiff of the past.
The strong and distinctive smell of Murphy Oil Soap, for example, can produce within me a sudden and inexplicable sensation of elation, anticipation, and relief. I’m sure the marketing folks at Colgate-Palmolive would be pleased, but my reaction is not suggested by any advertising efforts. Instead, my feelings date back to when I was nearing the end of second grade. The room was being prepared for summer break, and we were instructed to clean out our desks. We had those wonderful old desks that doubled as chairs, a triumph of functional engineering. The writing surface was bolted to an arm attached to the right of the seat (left-handers need not apply!), and a metal storage space enclosed on all but one side was located conveniently below the seat. Those seats were wooden, cut to a gentle slope from front to back, enabling one to repeatedly scoot up and slowly slide back in order to alleviate the tedium of institutionalized learning.
After we had removed everything from our storage spaces, we were each handed a commercial-grade paper towel soaked in Murphy Oil Soap. I dutifully swabbed mine across every surface, inhaling the heady fumes as I stuck my head in the storage space to ensure that I was doing a good job. The actual cleaning was just another chore, but what a joy it was to know that never again would I labor through second grade, and a summer of freedom was about to begin. You just can’t achieve that sort of sensory-associated ecstacy in a cleansing product ad, not unless you can get the unmistakable smell of Murphy Oil Soap to emenate from the screen and imprint itself within viewers’ brains.
Perhaps a long lag between our initial exposure to a strong scent and it recurrence is essential to the phenomenon of having our minds flash helplessly back to the past. If a particular aroma is part of our routine existence, why should we take special notice? But if we happen upon an odor that hasn’t wafted under our nostrils in many years, our minds start racing like a librarian toward an abandoned card file. See? our brains cry triumphantly, I knew I might need that again someday!
Or maybe the key to these experiences is the imprinting of olfactory sensations during our formative years. On how many different occasions throughout my life have I encountered the sharp scent of a charcoal grill? Yet whenever the first flaming briquettes of spring fill the neighborhood with appetizing smoke, I mentally travel not to my last barbecue but much farther back to summer vacations along Marble Lake in Michigan. A campfire, especially if its kindling includes dry leaves, produces within me the same effect. For a moment, I am a child again, back when these curious aromas were still a remarkable novelty.
However vivid the flashback, the phenomenon comes and goes in an instant. One moment I am twirling a pointer in my classroom, suddenly I behold a memory of my youth, and just as quickly I am back in the present. My instruction continues uninterrupted, and as I survey the young faces before me, I wonder what will trigger their future memories of these simpler days.
Despite the technical wizardry of the various mp3 players and video game devices that fill the pockets and backpacks of my students, they seem no less fascinated by a far more modest fad: fundraising pencils imbued with strong scents. Packaged individually in plastic tubes, they are impressively fragrant when first uncorked. One of the boys was eager to show off his new purchase on a recent morning, and as he walked into the room, he paused at my desk to produce a scented pencil marked ORANGE.
“Smell this, Mr. Hunt! Doesn’t it smell like Fruity Pebbles?”
He popped the cap off of the packaging tube and held it under my nose. “Mmm…” I murmured solemnly with my eyes closed, inhaling with all the gravity of Orson Welles savoring a glass of Paul Masson. “I think…yes…more like Froot Loops, I’d say.”
“Yeah, that’s it!” enthused my student. He walked to his desk and showed off the pencil to some classmates. “Check this out! Mr. Hunt says it smells like Froot Loops!”
One day, long after my teaching career is but a memory, he may absentmindedly fill the cereal bowl of his grandchild and suddenly find himself back in fourth grade.