The Beauty of Sensory Memory Triggers

February 25, 2016

The Beauty of Small Memory Triggers

Memories are a powerful thing. Our mind has a way of organizing and categorizing them for us, so that even when we’re not looking for them, they have a way of popping up. Many times it’s our senses that trigger them. The taste of your favorite food reminds you of the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant that you accidentally discovered while trying to find a different restaurant, or the smell of the air right after it rains brings you back to being 10 years old and getting stuck walking home in the rain.  The sound of that one song instantly takes you back to your first heartbreak and how painful it was, or the sight of the “lucky” shoes you were wearing when you landed your dream job always makes you smile. Even the touch of your coziest blanket reminds you of being curled up on your couch, watching cheesy TV movies, on those lazy days when you don’t want to get out of your PJ’s.  Without even trying to remember these moments, our mind remembers them for us and is all too often eager to share them with us again.

I was driving in the car the other day, and a song came on the radio that I hadn’t heard or thought about in years. My boyfriend looked at me like I’d lost my mind, as I actually started to laugh out loud for what appeared to be no reason, whatsoever.  To settle his fears, I began to explain the memory that hearing that song brought to mind. He didn’t quite seem to appreciate the story as much as I had. But I guess it was just one of “those things you had to be there for” to really get.

The whole thing got me thinking about how the song left an impression in my mind, and I had never even given it a second thought. In fact, I don’t really even like the song very much, but the memory it evoked of being 15 years old and goofing around with my best friends, re-enacting the scene from the sitcom it was on, was just as vivid, not to mention as hilarious to me now as it was then. And so out of curiosity, I texted my best friend, just the song lyrics, to see what her response would be. Of course, she responded with the follow-up line from the show.  And I knew that she was giggling and remembering that moment, too.

The song incident wasn’t the first time I’d had a “sense” memory vividly remind me of a moment in time. The smell of a certain shampoo takes me back to 9th-grade drivers ed,  a certain song transports me back to dancing in the parking lot after prom with my best friends, and the taste of a certain food reminds me of the day I decided to stop eating meat.  Watching a certain movie makes me think of my sister, and the feel of a certain fabric always makes me think of my dog.

I cherish all these memories, not because they’re favorites and not because I find pleasure in the smell or taste or even the song. I cherish them because they make me feel in the moment again. It’s almost a tangible memory. We live in a time of such instant gratification that we often forget to “stop and smell the roses.” Instead, we take pictures of everything–click a pic and move on, causing us to not always internalize what we are experiencing, and then we miss out on truly remembering how something made us feel. Before technology took over, we relied on our senses to remember how something made us feel. Now, we rely on our phones to remind us how we felt about something, and it’s not quite the same.

For some reason, particular memories are highlighted by sensory related elements. We don’t have control over which ones are affected, and more often than not, most memories are not connected to a sensation at all. But when we’re fortunate enough to experience one, it’s almost magical. Rarely in life are you given a chance to rewind and experience something again, and sense triggered memories allow you to relive those moments.

Memories are part of the foundation of who we are presently. Good and bad, funny and sad, they’re a reflection of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. They connect us to the people we love, the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve shared. Without them we’d be lost, having come from somewhere that we can’t quite trace back. And having a physical sensation attached to them is a bonus. It’s the icing on the cake.

Do you have any vivid sensory memory triggers that you cherish? 

Also by Danielle: How I Left the City and Moved into a House in the Woods

When I Grow Up…How My Childhood Dreams Came True

Related: On Reconciling Nostalgia with Being Present

Get more like thisSubscribe to our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!

Photo: Christopher Campbell via Unsplash

Danielle was born on a spooky Halloween night in Santa Barbara, Ca with saltwater in her veins and sunshine in her hair. She believes breakfast is best for dinner, flip flops go with EVERYTHING, and 'too much sleep' is an urban legend. Danielle is an artist, designer, baker extraordinaire, a little bit country and a little bit rock n' roll.


always stay inspired!