The Nose Knows

My mother's nose at 23. (All photos and copies property of Marylin Warner)

My mother’s nose at 23.
(All photos and copies property of Marylin Warner)


Mom's nose at 93, smelling an Easter lily...and remembering how she used to take lilies to shut-ins at Easter.

Mom’s nose at 93, smelling an Easter lily…and remembering how she used to take lilies to shut-ins at Easter.


Recently, the research into Alzheimer’s and dementia has focused on the connection between the sense of smell and memory. This is nothing new.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and association are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.”

And in the 1950s, conservationist and author Rachel Carson agreed. “For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories, and it is a pity that we use it so little.”

Six years ago, I read an article about stimulating memory by baking popular foods. To test it, I bought a roll of frozen gingerbread dough and made cookies in the oven in my mom’s kitchen in her assisted living apartment. As they baked, she awoke from her nap in her recliner. And as she enjoyed her cookies, she smiled and asked me if her mother was there. As it turned out, her mother—my grandmother, who had died many years earlier—had baked gingerbread for Mom, and the scent of the cookies had started Mom telling me some stories.

It you have a family member or a friend who struggles with Alzheimer’s or dementia, I recommend you try the power of scent to encourage their memories. Food, flowers, colognes and strong scents like lemons and vinegar are a good start, but you might be surprised how gasoline and turpentine—just a little bit on a paper towel—will also nudge awake memories, especially in men.

Do you remember the expression, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”?

Comedienne Chris Farley has a scent-adjustment on that: “In the land of the skunks, he who has half a nose is king.”

I’ll add this. “In the land of Alzheimer’s and dementia, favorite scents might be the best guides to help locate memories.” It’s not a joke; I hope you’ll try it.

But this is a joke, and I just couldn’t resist including Robert Byrne’s humorous rewrite of the moccasin adage: “Until you walk a mile in another man’s moccasins, you can’t imagine the smell.”    

Even my granddaughter Grace's Picasso-style portrait of me knew the importance of a nose.

Even my granddaughter Grace’s Picasso-style portrait of me knew the importance of a nose.  It just isn’t my nose… 

Eeew...what's that smell?

Eeew…what’s that smell?


Even when our Maggie had trouble hearing, nothing got past her sense of smell.

Even when our Maggie had trouble hearing, nothing got past her sense of smell.


Filed under art, Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, just doing the best we can, lessons about life, making a difference, special quotations

54 responses to “The Nose Knows

  1. It’s magic that you can re-awaken Mom’s memories with the sense of smell. It’s tragic that alzheimer’s means you can’t bring her back into the present the same way.
    I love the picture with the Easter Lily.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • The first Easter after I moved my parents into their assisted living apartment, they received three lilies from visitors. The scent was so strong that we opened all the windows, but my parents loved it, especially my mom.
      You’re so right, David, it is tragic that we can’t bring back Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to the present with help of familiar scents.
      Massive Hugs to you, too!

  2. What a grand potpourri of fragrance here, Marylin, much of it laced with humor including your granddaughter Grace’s nose portrait – ha! A year or two ago grandson Ian drew a portrait of me with two different eye colors (one pink, one blue) and disparate sizes. 🙂

    To add to your nosy sources: I have always enjoyed Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. I think she devotes one chapter alone to the sense of smell and includes an anecdote about a professional “nose” in New York.

    • Ackerman writes so well, Marian, and I agree that A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES is a gem of a book. I once watched an interview where she talked about infants and animals and what each group learned through their senses. It was a delightful interview; she speaks as well as she writes!

  3. I must add, your experiment with gingerbread dough is endearing. Love it!

  4. I can walk into a building sometimes and there’s a smell in the air – some kind of varnish or polish that takes me back 50 years to arriving at school one the first day of a new term. Only the first day, because that newly cleaned and polished smell never survived past the first day. It’s quite an overpowering experience when it happens.

    An interesting read indeed. Thank you.

    • Bill, I remember the same First Day scent of school! Maybe it was the freshly waxed floors and the clean chalk boards, but it was one of those rare–and brief–perfect smells. By noon on that day, the smell of kids and spilled lunches and sweat had taken over. Thank you for the comment; please join us again.

  5. Marylin, I do agree that the power of scent is so amazing! I can think of my grandmother instantly when I smell roses, Jergen’s lotion (no kidding), and fresh peaches. She loved all three.
    I loved my father’s aftershave, English Leather, and when I smell it in stores it will instantly bring him back to me.
    I bet your mom enjoyed that gingerbread. 🙂
    Joanne xo

    • Oh, Joanne, Jergen’s lotion is still a delight to me. It’s not that easy to find the “Original scent,” but when I do I have the best time. When I was growing up, I bought my mom “Evening In Paris” cologne in the dark blue bottle for Mother’s Day. Now THAT’s a scent I recognize now, too, and it reminds me of Sundays when she put on her earrings and then put dabs of the cologne behind each ear and on each wrist.

  6. A great post on the power of the sense of smell. It is the strongest sense but I find the most difficult to include in writing. I love your mom´s reaction to the gingerbread. I think of my grandmother whenever I smell camomile tea. ❤

    • Yes! So many teas make me remember my grandmother and my aunts, Darlene. And in the summer when our mint grew along the side of Mom’s garden, she’d put mint leaves in regular tea as it brewed, and the smell and minty taste now can put me immediately in the back yard, picking green leaves from the edge of the garden. Wonderful memories.

  7. A nose by any other name…
    It’s good to know another route to memories.
    smell seems to be especially powerful in bringing back the emotion of a memory.
    Fo r years the smell of a cigar would give me the sense of excitement and expectation of childhood Christmases. My Dad and Grandfather (Pop) wpuld share some small cheroot cigars on Christmas morning. Only ever at Christmas
    The smell brought back those feelings as well as the event
    Unfortunately now I just find the smell of cigar smoke repellant.
    But the smell of the sea still evoles all kinds of feelings of well-being and specific memories.
    Now we need iPhone 10 complete with smell generation technology.

    • Cigars and the sea, what a combination, Rod. When I think of cigars, I think of being at my neighbor’s house. We were 9 or 10, and were playing jacks out on the patio when we smell cigar smoke. We crept around behind the hedge where her brother and two friends were passing around a cigar they’s taken from the father’s stash.
      I think yours is a better memory, Rod. 😉

  8. It’s not only Alzheimer patients. There are some smells that bring me to my knees with memories of my childhood with my (long deceased) Mom. Great post.

    • Oh, I know, Kate. But I’m glad we’re now working harder to make the scent connection stronger for Alzheimer’s patients, to give them clearer memories if only for awhile. If only we could find a way to somehow keep those memories alive for them and build from there.

  9. I’ve just read Rod’s comment and I have very similar memories of Christmas cigars. We would always put a cigar on the tree for Poppa, my grandfather who only ever smoked them at Christmas – it was a real treat for him, just like the tray of tangerines were for us children, all individually wrapped in tissue or shine paper. Dad would buy these wholesale from the famous Covent Garden market in London. Smell definitely evokes deep rooted memories, Marylin – your suggestion to use these with Altzeimer patients is an excellent one.

    • I love your description of tangerines wrapped in “shine paper,” Jenny. We ate a lot of oranges throughout the year, but at Christmas one of my aunts gave us a small orange with cloves stuck all around. My mother would put in a pan of water to simmer and then add apple juice and one tea bag. I remember that smell–and taste–so clearly, and how wonderful it was to walk into the warm kitchen and ask, “Is it ready yet?” and wait with my mug.

  10. I agree with Kate, smells brings back so many memories for me. When I was a child I carried a handkerchief with my mom’s smell. Thank you for another wonderful post Marylin.

  11. So very true. My favourite smells were always freshly mown grass and baking in the kitchen. Gingerbread is always a big winner with us – always associated with happy times. Lovely post Marylin.

  12. I have long known the power of smell. I always could smell my Gran, a musk mixed with Topaz smell. My husband has a strange skin, leaves oily marks on sheets and pillows. I don’t smell him but can smell where he has been. When my first born arrived, I could smell him. He has a different and definite smell the second son didn’t/doesn’t have. Interesting.

    • Claudia, you have an amazingly precise and clear sense of smell! I’ve only known one other person–she was our Italian next door neighbor when I was growing up–who described how differently each of her children smelled at birth. Her mother teased her that maybe she’d eaten more or less garlic before each was born, but when she described the smells we listened in awe at the near poetry of her details.

  13. juliabarrett

    Yes, indeed. Scent therapy should be an actual therapy. This is going to sound odd, but my very best scent memory is of the goulash made in my elementary school cafeteria. Every once in a while I get a whiff of some component and I’m right back there in the cafeteria. I loved goulash day!

    • Oh, Julia, I remember that! Goulash must be a specific school cafeteria recipe everywhere, because as soon as I read your comment I remembered it clearly. It made me hungry and now I wish I could fix a big batch! 🙂

  14. Smell has always played a major roll in triggering memories for me, Marylin. Whenever I smell fried chicken, I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen. When I smell chlorine, I’m taken back to those long, hot summer vacations.
    I read somewhere that people who don’t have a good sense of smell, can have memory issues down the road. Have you heard anything like this?
    I love Maggie’s nose!

    • That was the newest study, Jill. I read the entire article about it, and it was leaning toward using diminished smell to identify future memory loss. It was still being studied and was the negative side of this coin; I’d rather use those same smells to trigger memories (even if only briefly) than to predict memory loss.
      I’m like you with the chlorine. It reminds me of the swimming pool on hot summer days, when we bought frozen candy bars at the concession stand to cool off. Then we dive into the pool to get the chocolate off our faces. 🙂

  15. Don

    I can identify with this completely, Marylin. I have had experiences where a particular smell has in a moment transported me back to a memory. It’s quite remarkable.

    • I love the smells that give me a specific memory, Don. But then there are the smells that are familiar, but I can’t figure out the time, place, person, etc. that goes with it. Those keep me sniffing around, trying to figure things out. 😉

  16. Lemons and vinegar would stir memories. Right away I think of my Mom’s excellent lemon meringue pie and her using vinegar when canning. I love both smells. I also love vinegar on my french fries.

    I love your experiment with the smell of gingerbread and am glad your Mom had such a positive response.

    • When Lemon Pledge came out, Judy, I volunteered to do the dusting because I loved the smell. But I got carried away and soon the furniture was greasy. 🙂 I put vinegar on my French fries, too!

  17. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Excellent idea, Marilyn.

    • At first I wondered what the big deal was between turpentine and gasoline–couldn’t everybody tell the difference?–but then I read an article that said that with some men, when the difference become blurred, it could indicate memory problems ahead. I don’t know how they come to these conclusions, Nancy. But I do know I’d rather use the sniff test to nudge memories awake than to predict memory loss.

  18. Molly

    I have personally experienced this throughout my life. There have been times when I have gone into a completely new place, and some smell gets my attention – and all of a sudden I am somewhere else. Mothballs always make me think of Grandma’s house – specifically my big blue comforter. Old Leather after shave makes me think of Grandpa. When Trevor works the night shift, I love to fall asleep on his pillow because it smells like him.

    Some smells to try with Grandma next trip: Moth balls, cinnamon ( used in her applesauce and also her play dough), and also baking bread. I wonder if any of these would perk her nose.

    Very informational and memory provoking. Thanks, Momma!

    • Okay, Mookie, next time I’ll try the moth balls. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that; her walk-in closet was strong with moth balls! I did try the cinnamon (it was a cinnamon air freshener) and she smiled and nodded, but it didn’t nudge any memories. But again, you’re right that in applesauce it might have better results. Thanks, Molly.!

  19. My daughter has no sense of smell.
    It does not rate as a disability like deafness or blindness, yet it has its problems.

  20. jakesprinter

    And i smell it too ! ha ha ha …Great post Marylin

  21. Marylin, what a wonderful and unique way to showcase a “nose”. You’re so right, our sense of smell triggers memories. When I working as a Home-Stager, I made the recommendation to boil cinnamon before an open house. The scent of cinnamon would make the potential buyer feel they were in “their new” warm and loving home. And again, this post a triggered a memory for me. One of smelling roses reminds me of my Nana’s garden. Love the photos and, of course, Grace’s Picasso-style masterpiece.

  22. The Picasso-style masterpiece was especially for you, Tracy! I knew it would trigger memories for you. 😉
    That’s a great idea for creating the feeling a warm and loving home. I had a friend who used to bake Snickerdoodle cookies when she held an Open House. The cinnamon and sugary smell–and they she offered the cookies to prospect buyers–was surprisingly effective.

  23. Jim

    This post ranks right up there with your best for both entertainment and good suggestions for family of those suffering from Alzheimers/dementia. I always associate the sweet smell of pipe tobacco with my Grandpa, who would sit me on his lap, smoke his pipe, and tell me railroad stories.

    • My grandfathers didn’t smoke pipes, so I missed out on that memory. Hmm…maybe you could start smoking a pipe, honey, so I can catch up. 🙂
      Or not.
      But I love the image of you sitting sitting on your grandpa’s lap as he smoked his pipe and told you railroad stories.

  24. My mom lost her sense of smell after recovering from a nasty headcold. She can still taste, though. And this post got me to thinking about Aunt Florence (Jergen’s lotion), Mrs. Boni’s first grade classroom (Chanel #5), Aunt Jane (Rain Bath) and my dad (Aqua Velva). Thanks for the smells down Memory Lane!

    • It’s amazing, Elizabeth, that she still has the sense of taste after losing her sense of smell. Often, if you lose one, it diminishes the other, so your mom’s very fortunate.
      I love the list you make of people and places with the memory smells you’ve listed. For me, it’s Evening in Paris cologne that reminds me so much of my mom when I was in fourth and fifth grade, the two years I bought her the cologne as gifts.

  25. Wonderfully educational and fun post Marylin, as always! The nose knows, that’s for sure! The sense of smell is so powerful, and I love the story of your dear mom waking up while you baked the gingerbread cookies and thought of her own dear mother. It’s great to know these tips to help those suffering from memory loss, thank you for sharing them. Science is great isn’t it? I remember Chris Farley, so funny, and that is a funny last quote…I’m scrunching up my nose just like your grandchild at the thought of those moccasins! I’m always being teased for my over-sensitive sense of smell 😉

    • This was a fun post, Sherri, hearing all the stories everyone shares about the power of smell! When I think of the faces everyone made at the various body smells in elementary school, it’s makes me cringe (and also laugh). But my favorite stories are those about people like my mom who do respond to smells and then talk about memories.
      With your over-sensitive sense of smell, you’d be a great activities director in an assisted living facility. And with your smile and sweet sense of humor, you’d be excellent! 🙂

      • Ahh, how kind of you to say Marylin, but that’s a career I never would have thought of in a million years, although I did work as an assistant in a nursing home for the elderly when my eldest son was little, as a way to make extra pennies when we were skint. Several of the elderly ladies there (only one man, a Reverend!) come to think of it had dementia and Alzheimer’s. And now I remember one dear, sweet lady as I type, every evening on my shift I sat with her helping her sip a tiny glass of sherry (something the head nurse insisted on as a treat), she always wrinkled her nose, flushed red in her cheeks and said, ‘Ooooooooh’ and gave a little smile. It was the most response she ever gave day or night. It never failed to move me. Thank you so much for reminding of that lovely lady. I just wish I could remember her name… 🙂

  26. Your smile, Sherri, as you served the woman a tiny glass of sherry, worked magic with her! Now go sip some wine or sherry, and see if you can remember her name. 😉

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