Building a Memory Palace with Scents

My father had a photographic memory. He could glance at a page of poetry, a list of numbers or a collage of images and remember them more or less precisely. It was something that left everyone awestruck and at parties he was happy to oblige by memorizing card combinations and such. Sadly, I inherited none of his prowess in this particular area; I had to build my own memory skills. As I became more interested in scents, I realized that more than anything else, perfume helped me reconstruct whole scenes. When I smell the honeyed sweetness of linden blossoms after a summer rain, I’m back in Kiev, walking down the sunlit avenues, a melting ice cream cone in hand. A whiff of Diorissimo—and I’m 5 years old, watching my mother put on her green checkered tweed suit and arrange her bob with a spritz of hair spray.

The link between olfaction and memory is mentioned every time the topic of perfume comes up. What’s discussed less frequently though is how scents can help us retain information; in other words, how they can become a part of one’s memory palace. So, you’re now wondering, what’s the memory palace? It’s a tactic developed by the ancient Greeks that entails memorizing by using personal mnemonic anchors and visualization techniques. Memory Palace was also the name of one of the events in the Brainwave Series at New York’s Rubin Museum held in May, and among the mnemonic devices featured, scents played an important role.

The Rubin event was led by the witty and eccentric Ed Cooke, a columnist for the London Times, author of Remember, Remember (Penguin, 2008) and a memory champion. His ability to memorize 1000 numbers in an hour or a deck of cards in under two minutes is what landed him many victories in such contests. I don’t aspire to such feats of memory–remembering phone numbers or lists of things I need to buy at the grocery store is enough. But as Cooke showed, anchoring a memory is the best way to remember something as simple as a string of words or as complex as pages of Chinese characters. Perhaps, my father used similar techniques, but I’ve never asked him and simply took it for granted that he had an impressive memory.

You can read more about the Memory Palace event at the Rubin Museum’s website (they also feature a video of Ed Cooke explaining the basic concept), and Wikipedia has a good article on the topic. What interested me the most about the event was how scents could be used effectively as memory anchors. The idea went beyond a simple random association by linking a specific scent to a certain concept.

The Memory Palace event was comprised of four lessons and each lesson was held on a different floor of the museum. On one level we had to memorize the twelve aspects of dependent origination that are essential to the concept of Buddhism, while inhaling a mouthwatering vanilla and spice blend—craving is what leads to suffering, after all. On another level, the scent of green tea perfumed the lesson on the six realms of existence. Rich sandalwood wafted around the shrine of Buddha as we learned about the Eight Great Fears. (Just so you know, the list includes ghosts and being trampled by elephants. Earlier that evening I had experienced a rough rush hour ride on the A train so I could understand why this might be a concern.) Finally, jasmine was a scented anchor for remembering the marks of Buddha.

The scents were supplied by Jillian Friedman and Virginia Bonofiglio. Friedman is a fragrance consultant who has a great reputation for her aesthetic sensibility, while Bonofiglio is the Cosmetics & Fragrance Marketing Department professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Their choice of scents was their own interpretation of the lessons’ contents, but in the end, the perfumes were distinctive enough to be easily remembered.

Now, more than a month later, I can recall both the rich jasmine perfume and random things like Buddha having long, slender fingers, 40 teeth, and thighs like the royal stag. It all sunk in effortlessly, despite the fact that until I stepped inside the Rubin Museum, my knowledge of Buddhism was minimal, to say the least. The success of this undertaking inspired me to explore scents more extensively as my own mnemonic devices by burning incense when I read the latest paper on fragrance chemistry or wearing Chanel No 5, the most French of all perfumes in my collection, when I study the irregular French verbs. Or perhaps just wearing a favorite perfume to commemorate any moment I want to remember. I suppose that all of us scent addicts do this instinctively anyway, but it’s fascinating to know that we can use our love of fragrance with purpose.

Photography © Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved

Rubin Museum of Art: Art of the Himalayas
150 West 17th Street  New York, NY 10011
(212) 620-5000
www.rmanyc.org

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26 Comments

  • Lucy: I love that phrase Memory Palace. Beautiful post, and love that concept. So wonderful to think of holding important details and moments through perfume. June 14, 2012 at 7:12am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved the idea and the whole concept of learning/memorizing by creating a memory palace. The wiki article I linked to has a couple of nice examples that anyone can try. The idea is to separate the information spatially as well as to assign images to each thing you want to memorize. So, say you need to memorize a list of perfume names–Shalimar, Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue, Chamade, Nahema, Samsara. You can assign different images to each name and put it around your room. So, Shalimar would go on your dresser, Mitsouko–on your bed, L’Heure Bleue–on your armchair and so on. It worked remarkably well! June 14, 2012 at 11:46am Reply

  • Suzanna: Absolutely fascinating! I love that you wear No. 5 while tackling those irregular verbs. A whiff of that classic should get you around the stem-changers! June 14, 2012 at 8:08am Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 Nothing like a whiff of familiar when tacking those pesky irregular verbs. June 14, 2012 at 11:47am Reply

  • ewewhojane: I love this idea, and scents definitely take me back to certain times and places. I can’t wear Coromandel because it reminds of a college boyfriend who liked me to wear Obsession. How I get Obsession out of Coromandel I’ll never figure out! June 14, 2012 at 9:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Maybe, the combination of patchouli and sweet oriental notes in Coromandel made you think of Obsession. But Coromandel is a weird one. Sometimes it feels so exotic to me, sometimes it’s so familiar. June 14, 2012 at 11:55am Reply

  • Nikki: Such great inspiration, simply brilliant, Victoria! I will try these asap! Of course, intuitively I am already creating my own memory palace with the different rooms of my cherished memories of people and sometimes places, but mostly beloved people and the fragrance that reminds me of them and the time past. le temps perdu mais eternel. However, using scent to retain knowledge is astonishing! The Carnegie system uses these kind of “bridges” to remember peoples’ names. By the way, lovely photos, thank you for sharing. Now I will check out your link to the Rubin Museum, thank you! June 14, 2012 at 10:25am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you enjoyed it! The Rubin Museum was very interesting. As we walked around different floors, I had a chance to look at their collection of Buddhist art. Some carvings and paintings were amazing. They also have a nice cafe serving Indian and Asian food. June 14, 2012 at 11:57am Reply

  • Zazie: Love this post!
    As you say, the link between scent and memories is often mentioned – i have never thought one could use this link “actively”, to improve mnemonic skills.
    maybe not really related: I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book from Matteo Ricci “Descrizione della Cina”. In this occasion I heard for the first time about “memory palaces”, as it is the title of a biography dedicated to this enlightened traveller (Ricci had an amazing memory. He was sent to China in the 16th century, where he carried entire libraries inside his head and he used his impressive mnemonic assets to establish a loving contact with his adoptive country).
    I have an amazing memeory for the superflous. But then I forget where I’ve placed my keyes…and sometimes my head! 😉 June 14, 2012 at 10:59am Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds like a fascinating book, and I’ll have to check it out (a good opportunity to dust off my Italian “memory palace”!)
      You know, another Italian was famous for his memory, or rather for his ability to learn languages in an incredibly short period of time. Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) was a Cardinal, and his archives are still studied in hopes to figure out how he managed to learn languages so well. He spoke around 39 languages fluently. June 14, 2012 at 12:01pm Reply

  • Michael: Thanks for a fascinating post. Sounds like a great experience! I wish I knew about it because I would have liked to attend something like this. Do you know if it’s a recurring event? June 14, 2012 at 1:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Michael, I am not sure if it’s a recurring event or just a one time feature. I only learned about it when it was already sold out. I very much hope that they repeat it, because it was such a success. The room was packed and all of us who attended had a great time. June 14, 2012 at 3:05pm Reply

  • Paul Schütze: Great post. Wonderful to hear of someone linking the realms of olfaction and memory in such a lyrical way! The origins of the Memory Palace as a mnemic technique go back to ancient Rome. Orators placed individual words throughout an imagined building, navigating through the rooms to retrieve them. Some could recite whole speeches backward by reversing their journey through the space. Francis Yates book, The Art Of Memory, is a wonderful and thorough history. June 14, 2012 at 2:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for this recommendation, Paul. Even since I attended the event, I’ve been wanting to learn more about this technique. We also had to recite the information backwards during our Museum lessons, and it was incredible how easy it turned out to be.

      So, The Art Of Memory is on my reading list! June 14, 2012 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Rose D: I would definitely try the Chanel nº5 trick this weekend while studying for my French test! For some odd reason, I can remember short extracts form Flaubert and Colette; but when it comes to passé simple, I am lost 🙁 June 14, 2012 at 3:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: The memory can be very selective! But it sounds like yours has selected out great things to remember. 🙂 June 15, 2012 at 6:41am Reply

  • marsi: I love this post! Who is the pretty lady in your photo? June 14, 2012 at 3:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Marsi! Those are some old family photos (the lady with a leopard print color is my great grandmother) and the picture on the right is a mosaic I photographed in India. It was from a palace that was decorated liberally with sandalwood, so the whole place smelled of it. June 15, 2012 at 6:41am Reply

  • Tara: I just wanted to say thank you. What an interesting and inspiring post. As you say, I like the idea that my love for perfume can have practical applications. 🙂 June 14, 2012 at 4:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! And yes, we can find useful applications for our perfume enjoyment, which is a great discovery for me. 🙂 June 15, 2012 at 6:45am Reply

  • Undina: A-ha! And I thought that I was just born lucky with a good memory. The truth is: I was wearing perfumes every day the most part of my life! 🙂

    Thank you for the fascinating read, I enjoyed your story. June 14, 2012 at 7:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that yes, you were born with some great gifts. 😉 But as Ed Cooke was explaining, a good memory can be acquired by developing these visualization skills. I studied Japanese for my college degree, and now that I think about it, our teacher used similar visualization techniques to help us remember characters. I still remember them now, even those I hardly ever get a chance to practice my Japanese. June 15, 2012 at 7:18am Reply

  • Civava: Nice article really. I have photographic memory myself. I used that a lot during my studies. But when I had to process a lot of material it didn’t work so well. I had to do excerpts. I know I remembered positions and the first letters of the words listed. And I used a lot of colours of course….;-). I still remember first time I sniffed Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew…I couldn’t remember of what it remindes me of. It reminded me of some cheap dry shampoo I used only once when I was little. I checked it and it was true. Wierd. June 16, 2012 at 1:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! Scent memories are very specific, but it’s obvious that your dry shampoo made an impression on you somehow. Plus, the scent memories from our childhood are the strongest. No wonder that most perfumers come from the perfumer families–by the time they are very young, they already have a well-developed lexicon of scents.

      Highlighting in different colors worked for me too when I was studying. I’ve done this when I was memorizing gender of specific words in French. Or my roommate and I would make up little silly sentences like, “Helen prefers onions and men in moderation.” 🙂 June 16, 2012 at 3:57am Reply

  • Memory of Scent: I love the term “memory palace”. This is the first time I hear it although I have been unknowingly building mines since I was a child. I have a terrible memory and when I was six years old I had to learn multiplications of 5. It was impossible because my memory seems to lock out everything arranged in lists. As soon as someone presents me with a list it is a dead end for me. So although I didn’t know divisions yet I devised a complicated algorithm where instead of multiplying a number with 5 I divided by two and multiplied by 10. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was obviously mapping my memory palace to make sense of the “incoherent” list. Thanks for the fabulous read although it made me realize how much I am missing, not living in NY. June 16, 2012 at 6:01am Reply

    • Victoria: You should check the offerings at the small museums in your area, because these kind of events travel around.

      It sounds like you really did create a memory palace yourself. I think that it’s fascinating! June 17, 2012 at 4:54pm Reply

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