Why smelling or tasting whisky, triggers memories
Ever since I started drinking whisky, I tended to correlate the smell and taste to a visualization. I call it "creating the scene". Whiskies with certain flavors or scents tend to form a visual scene in my head.
A warm fruity whisky for example, somehow gives me a visualization of sun dried fields of grass with sporadic trees and immediately after that the warm buzzing sounds of insects and me sitting in a folding chair overlooking that field. This is based on a memory of me eating sweet apples on a camping in France in my childhood. And I got many more examples of scenes that I visualize when eating or drinking something.
Why is it that this happens?
A hint of coconut
I started to look into this phenomenon when I started to visit tastings. Why? Because at a tasting people start to mention what they get from smelling or tasting the dram. You hear people almost happily shouting things across the table like: "I got a hint of coconut!"
I did get the coconut, in the end, but after imaging a view overlooking a beach filled with tourists all using their own brand of sunscreen. Some sunscreens tend to use coconut as a perfume to suggest the tropical destination you might be at while sunbathing. Others go for fruity tones like pineapple or melon.
And that is what I got that instance: I took a sniff and was on a beach, smelling sunscreen, squeezing my eyes against the bright sun and seeing the waves break on the white sand. I later realized I got coconut as well. But this hint of coconut triggered a memory. And sucked me into a visualization of my perspective of that memory.
All this because of a hint of coconut in a small tasting glass somewhere in the Netherlands. I was intrigued. How does smell have this enormous impact on me? And why do I get a memory of visualization of a memory, instead of just the word "coconut"?
The location of the olfactory system
Great, scientific words in my blog. I never thought it would happen on this website, but here we are, using words like olfactory system.
The olfactory system is almost all parts in your body connected to smelling.
Smell, very closely connected to taste, is the oldest way for us so navigate in the world. Babies that are net yet seeing, use smell to recognize safety, finding food (mothers breast) and comfort. It is the first sense we use as human beings. And it is actually one of the stronger senses we have, although we tend to focus ourselves on the others, going from seeing (visual), hearing, touching and then maybe smelling.
Because smelling is something we do without noticing, it is almost always logging scents and connecting it to situations, contexts and scenery without us even noticing.
But why is it so important if smelling comes last?
According to scientists, it is possible that smelling can trigger emotions we have, based on memories where we experienced such emotions. For example, when we take a relaxing bath using a lavender bath oil, (or soap or foam) we start to connect the scent of lavender with relaxation. The scent triggers a feeling. As did the hint of coconut during the tasting with me, I felt warm, sunny and relaxed. The way I felt when I was sitting on that beach smelling the sunscreen of my fellow beachgoers.
Now, although the memory might not be accurate, because we were registering it "on the background" with our olfactory system, it does invoke a strong response in a form of feeling or emotion. Scientists think this might be of the location of the olfactory system in the brain, where is is right next to the limbic system. This limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses.
Because of this location, the olfactory system is transporting information almost directly to the limbic system, storing or triggering the context that we are in and the emotions we feel at that moment. Secondary point of interest might be that with smelling, we tend to store unique information. Colors we see every day, but some scents are so rare or rarely experienced, we immediately connect it to the first time we smelled it. Memories based on scents tend to be our oldest memories, our happiest memories or our most traumatizing memories. (Ever got really sick while drinking Sambucca all night? What happens when you smell it now?)
Now this is the moment where the magic happens for me. When the memory is triggered by the scent you just had on your nostrils, your brain starts connecting dots. And those dots can be memories created by other ways of sensing things.
Some people are auditory minded, others visually.
I recently met a very nice fellow dram fan, who connected his whisky to a song in his head when he was smelling and tasting his whisky. One or two sniffs and he mentioned a song he thought was perfect for listening while drinking this dram. I was amazed. Until I realized he was auditory minded. Where I'm someone who's visually minded. Therefore my mind creates an image based on the triggering scent. I remember images, moments and parts of those moments. So I tend to create a visual context in my head for the scents I get. Only when that has happened, I'm able to get the scent out of context and give it a name. They say practice makes perfect and I can still perfect my way of smelling and tasting a whisky. Then I might get to the brain process a bit quicker and name the thing I sell right away.
Coconut, right, I got this.