Keith Kelsen’s Narrative of Scent: Time Travel Through Scent

Scent can transport you back through time. 

Time travel through Scent? I think that I have experienced it, myself.  As a kid, our family would visit my grandmother’s house at least one or two times a month.  She lived in Solvang, a Danish town near Santa Barbara.  We always had a great time.  There was a distinct olfactory experience that was always present.  You see, my Grandmother had an incredible rose garden.  From the moment we exited the car you could smell the sweet Scent of roses that surrounded her front yard.

Grandma’s Rose.

As a young boy,  I really had no interest in those roses.  However, later in life after she had passed away, I returned to Solvang.  I sat in her rose garden and reveled in the Scent of the roses on that warm day. It brought me back to a time of innocent and carefree days.  I felt Grandma’s presence.  As I walked through the garden, I spotted the perfect rose. One whiff and I was a boy again, laughing and playing in the garden.  I photographed that rose and today that photograph hangs in my parent’s home as “Grandma’s Rose”.

After being so deeply connected to my own Grandmother and the fragrance of roses, it got me thinking about the number of times a Scent has transported me to another time.  Not only the Scent of a rose but other Scents as well.  The scent is the most powerful memory trigger. Have you ever noticed that a single Scent can bring forth a vivid rush of memories? The smell of tollhouse cookies baking might remind you of happy times with your mother. The Scent of a perfume might remind you of a romantic partner with whom your relationship ended.


“I was behind a woman with her back to me, her hair was in my nose, and I could smell the perfume, Shalimar, and I hadn’t smelled it in [years]. It seemed like I was transported back to high school,” Dr. Howard Eichenbaum, Director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology at Boston University.


Why does smell act as such a powerful memory trigger?

First, the olfactory nerve is located very close to the amygdala, the area of the brain that is connected to the experience of emotion and its memory. Second, the olfactory nerve is very close to the hippocampus, which is associated with memory. Our ability to smell is highly linked to memory. Research has shown that when areas of the brain connected to memory are damaged, the ability to identify smells is highly impaired.

According to some research, studying information in the presence of Scent increases the vividness and intensity of that remembered information when you smell it again. Scent is a tool I use in my business and my writing to help make my “imagined world” more real. For example, the Scent of the ocean; that fresh and clean briny smell always sooths me and makes me smile. It reminds me of my father, who loves the ocean, and taught my brothers and I sailing.

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”- Albert Einstein

Scent as the Proustian hypothesis of time travel.

The entire recognition of Scent and memory began after the French writer Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time) described a character vividly recalling long-forgotten memories from his childhood after smelling a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit…

“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses.” ― Marcel ProustÀ la recherche du temps perdu 

Proust was the father of Scent as time travel, well over 100 years ago, coincidentally about the same time that Einstein was perfecting his theories about the physics of time travel. However, then it was a theory today it is a practical reality. We know that Scent transports us through time.  Every Scent that triggers a memory, like the Scent of a rose triggers a moment when I was at my Grandmother’s, and instantly transports me to that very moment.

“Yet a single sound, a single Scent, already heard or breathed long ago, may once again, both in the present and the past, be real without being present, ideal without being abstract, as soon as the permanent and habitually hidden essence of things is liberated, and our true self, which may sometimes have seemed to be long dead, but never was entirely, is re-awoken and re-animated when it receives the heavenly food that is brought to it.”― Marcel ProustTime Regained

H.G. Wells, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein framed time travel at relatively the same time.

Haven’t you often wished you could travel back in time? In works of fiction, like H. G. Wells, 1895 classic, The Time Machine science fiction sets up the frame narrative. Ten years later, Albert Einstein put forth special relativity in 1905, about the same time Proust was writing À la recherche du temps perdu. Einstein’s understanding that every massive object in the Universe must travel through time was just one of its astounding implications. We also learned that photons cannot experience time at all.

Like Scent molecules, protons are the same from the instant one is emitted to the instant it’s absorbed, only observers can see the passage of time. From the photon’s reference frame, the entire Universe contracts down to a single point.  At that point, absorption and emission happens all at the same time: instantaneously.  Scent molecules travel in much the same way; it is only the perception of them that makes the Scent appear to be present, triggering possibly in the observer, a moment in the past. Perhaps there is no need for breakthrough technology to take us back in time.

How does Scent time travel work?

Research is being done right now that will prove how Scent creates a sense of time travel.  We know that our Scent “palette” is created very early in the human life cycle, arguably in the womb.  With that as a basis point, scientists have been experimenting with Senior Citizens on using Scent to trigger memories and even help them re-experience them.

The nose, an emotional time machine.[1] 

Dr. Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, described the power of smell to serve as an almost “magical time machine”. Her work has immense potential for treating dementia and depression.  Both dementia and depression are affecting the greatest population of aging people ever in history, Baby Boomers (and their surviving parents).

Dr. Maria Larsson, Johan Willander and others in their Swedish lab are proving that Scent can help uncover the past.  According to the New York Times article (cited), the study consisted of Swedes whose average age was 75. Researchers offered 3 different sets of memory cues: the cue as a word, as a picture and as a smell. They used 20 different examples.  The scientists found that for the subject’s adolescence and young adulthood, the word and visual cues elicited most memories. However, Scent cues evoked thoughts of early childhood, under the age of 10.

Dr. Larsson reported people spoke of these memories in exceptionally rich and emotional terms, and “they were much likelier to report the sudden sensation of being brought back in time. They smelled cardamom, and there they were in the kitchen, flour dust flying as they helped Mama and Nana roll out the holiday buns. The Scent of tar, and they’re back at the dock with Dad, tarring the bottom of the family boat in anticipation of long summer sails. [2]” . Dr. Larsson attributes the early memories to the fact that olfaction is the first of our senses to mature. That sense links early to our emotions and becomes a part of our cognitive process for our lifetime.

The Wormhole of Scent.

“Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out.”- Steven Hawking

Wormholes are believed to be warped space-time with great energy that can create tunnels through that space-time continuum. Theoretically, they would allow a traveler to quickly travel through time.  This is the promise of Scent.  As 2017 Nobel Prize-winning U.S. physicist, Dr. Kip Thorne suggests it could be done with a time machine, using wormhole technology.  Of course, it would require a society so technologically advanced that it could master and exploit the energy within Black Holes.  Not likely in our lifetimes, if ever.  The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves” was divided between Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne.  Those gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago. So, what about time travel by other means?

The Speed of Scent.

Since a “black hole powered time machine” is not available to us, Scent may be our only time traveling option. In a simple “whiff” and you are there reliving your fondest memories. The speed of Scent can transport us through to a point in time.

“On the one hand, olfaction is our slow sense, for it depends on messages carried not at the speed of light or of sound, but at the far statelier pace of a bypassing breeze, a pocket of air enriched with the sort of small, volatile molecules that our nasal-based odor receptors can read. Yet olfaction is our quickest sense. Whereas new signals detected by our eyes and our ears must first be assimilated by a structural way station called the thalamus before reaching the brain’s interpretive regions, odiferous messages barrel along dedicated pathways straight from the nose and right into the brain’s olfactory cortex, for instant processing.[1]“ – Dr. Jay A. Gottfried, Northwestern University

Parkinson’s could be a time-shifter.

In cases of Parkinson’s disease, a poor sense of smell is a common symptom. This is due to the disease causing damage to the olfactory nerves. This damage to the cells that transmit information about the sense of smell from the nose to the brain causes a disability to sense ordinary smells.  In a few rare cases, the impairment can create “Phantom Smells”.  In some cases, someone with Parkinson’s disease can predict an incoming storm 15 hours in advance, just by the phantom smell produced. This could also be due to barometric pressure drop affecting the olfactory system.  We just don’t know, yet it opens up the possibility of Scent being a predictor. MOre research, as always, needs to be done.

Could Scent take us forward in time?

Is there a memory of the future, some insight associated with the olfactory system?  Some even claim that burning or sleeping with bay leaves increases psychic abilities. Scent then gains insight to the future. Whether it is true or not, we do know that molecules of Scent change our emotional and psychological state.  So, is there a future in time travel with Scent and the sense of smell? We do know that it can take us to memories of the past.  But, for the future, I’ll leave that for you to decide and where that Scent may bring you…

[1] The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine by Natalie Angier New York Times Aug. 5, 2008
[2] New York Times Aug. 5, 2008

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