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