When I was very young, I remember my mother telling me about an article she had read about a model that chose to wear a different fragrance every time he went traveling. He would wear certain cologne for a few months at a time, and keep the remaining fragrance in a bottle. Upon returning home he would put the bottles neatly away and smell them whenever he wanted to remember his adventures.
The smell of sunscreen might remind you of time spent at the beach, the scent of plumeria might remind you of a trip to Maui, and the overwhelming scent of Axe body spray might take you back to your 6th grade locker hallways.
Smells are able to bring up memories in a way different than photographs or souvenirs. Not only does this remind you of the time you spent at that place, but also the emotions you felt in that moment.
Let’s take the sunscreen example. The smell of sunscreen reminds you of the beach. However, the smell not only reminds you of summer, waves, and sunshine, but of how you FELT while you were there – in this case, perhaps relaxed, happy, and carefree.
This phenomenon – more specifically, the phenomenon that emotionally charged memories can be triggered by specific smells, is called the Proustian Phenomenon (named after Marcel Proust, who wrote about how a tea-soaked biscuit brought about childhood memories).
The anecdote about the world traveling model always stuck with me, and so in college, I decided to start trying it out all by myself. I started picking out specific perfumes to wear on specific trips, and, while I can’t tell you that it worked every time, specific perfumes now vividly remind me of specific times in my life. Here’s a short list of the three perfumes that bring back the strongest emotionally charged memories for me:
Donna Karan Cashmere Mist: Brings me back to New York City, on a trip I took freshman year to visit a high school friend. The trip was a whirlwind of fun – sleeping on the streets in order to get tickets for Saturday Night Live, seeing Dave Chappelle perform in a cramped Manhattan club, climbing stairs and taking elevators to friends of friends’ dorm rooms… The perfume brings back equal parts feelings of excitement and awkwardness. Excitement from being in New York City with my friend, doing so many amazing things, and awkwardness from being in such a new place filled with people I didn’t know but who all knew each other.
Laila: Reminds me of the summer after freshman year, having fun visiting friends in the Pacific Northwest. The scent fills me with a bittersweet feeling as I remember the sadness of leaving all my college friends behind and my delight to be done with finals and instead basking in sunshine.
Dior Hypnotic Poison: Reminds me of the time I spent in Europe last year. Bored one night in the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, I doused myself in the stuff in the Duty Free shop (when you’ve lost your luggage and only have the clothes you’re wearing, one good perfume shower can be as effective as a daily spritz), then ended up getting a small sample vial from a Polish Sephora some time later.
Want To Try It Yourself?
Before your trip I recommend stopping by Sephora (or your local cosmetics/department store) to get a small sample vial of the fragrance of your choosing. It’s free, and Sephora will provide you with sample of whatever perfume or cologne you desire.
On your trip, wear the perfume regularly. (Never overdo it and if you’re going on a 10 hour bus ride, don’t wear fragrance out of respect for whoever is sitting next to you.)
This Last Part is Key: Make sure to actively associate the smell with your travels. I have found that wearing the fragrance is not enough. You must also actively make it a part of your experience. When you put in on in the morning (perhaps, better put, WHY you are doing it). Smell your wrist while you’re out and about. Spritz a little more on if you see a bottle of it while shopping in a department store or at the airport. I’ve found this part to be key in my perfume/trip memory association exercise. The perfumes that do trigger an emotional memory response from me are the ones that I actively spent a bit of time thinking about while on my trips.
Cashmere Mist reminds me of New York City not only because I wore it while I was there but also because I constantly compared the prices of bottles in department stores and at street vendors. Laila reminds me of the Northwest not only because I wore it but also because a girl I met there told me how the scent reminded her of her childhood babysitter. I tracked down Hypnotic Poison in every Duty Free shop I could find while I was in Europe last summer (I get to airports too early).
While I am no neuroscientist, and while there is still much to discover about the Proustian Phenomenon, I truly believe that wearing fragrance regularly while traveling can help you more vividly remember your trip later. And even if it doesn’t work – at least you’ll end up smelling fantastic!