Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Olfactory Triggers Stimulate Intense Memories

Have you ever caught a scent in the air that flooded you with vivid memories? We all experience them; specific, usually strong, chemical signals that conjure intense memories. Here’s one of mine.

I opened a package of cannabis a little while ago and I started singing a Waylon Jennings tune to myself, "ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold,..." and smiled as I thought of the rolling hills surrounding my Uncle Tim's house in the Sierras. I remembered one summer in the early eighties when my brother and I went on little drives with him around the mountains of Northern California in his old Chevy pickup.



The transporting smell was Blueberry. But it wasn't Blueberry in its best form. My cannabis was a full year old. I’d been saving it in my humidor for an occasion when I needed a CBN- rich strain to help me sleep. This flower being over a year old would be quite rich in CBN and is indeed great for sleep.

As I opened the package and took a big whiff, the aroma must have matched what I remembered from back then because it took me to the coffee table. Instantly, I was a skinny twelve-year-old boy with bushy brown hair sitting beside my Uncle Tim on the couch, watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom as he loaded his bong.

I would describe the smell of my 7 gram zip as definitely headed toward hay. Most of the monoterpenes were gone and the remaining terpenes that I could detect for sure were beta-caryophyllene and humulene. Both are sedative sesquiterpenes.

[IMAGE: Beta-Caryophyllene molecular drawing.]

He was a firefighter and well known in the area. Everywhere we went, everybody seemed to know my uncle Tim. We stopped by the firehouse and he came back with a brown paper bag.

"I got the stuff for my fountain," he said with a devilish grin and stuffed the bag under the seat.

He had told us earlier that the big green glass thing with a 12- inch neck and a bowl he held a flame to was a fountain. Later he would try to tell us that it was a musical instrument and we were supposed to hear a melody in all of the bubbling going through it. I know now that to a true lover of cannabis, there is music in that percolating sound. 

[VIDEO is just the 12-second intro with the Bong Rip audio]

One evening while staying with my Uncle Tim I was introduced to snipe hunting. The whole place was built on the slope of the mountain with flat areas landscaped into the hillside for the house, barn and yard. My brother and I were taken to a place a couple hundred meters ‘up the hill’ at twilight. Down the hill, my aunt and uncle were circling around us to set up Fourth of July fireworks in the large driveway.

We peered into the void, ready with a gunny sack and stick, ‘hunting’ in the dark for what seemed hours, though it must have only been thirty minutes.  In a little while my brother and I stood trembling - both from fear and excitement - back-to-back, ready to defend ourselves from whatever might jump out of the dark at us. Every little sound – a moth, a bird, something scratching at the dry forest floor – was our potential prey. We had no idea what we were going to do with it, but we stood ready to capture the elusive snipe.

When my brother whisper-shouted that he thought he saw one, I got pretty excited. But as we all know it was just his imagination and mine.  Both of us crouched – sacks open, ready to spring, scanning the darkness for the slightest movement – but it was nothing.  We both gasped as we hadn’t realized we had been holding our breath.

“I think it got away,” Dan whispered.

“Just be quiet!” I replied.  Something was definitely coming our way.

Something had been very noisy in its approach, but as it got closer, the faint steps became almost silent. I couldn’t tell if I had heard four feet or two.  My heart felt like it would burst right out of my chest as I struggled to remain still.  Another rustling came closer to me. I struggled to see the creature and caught a barely visible grayness that definitely moved, then stopped right in front of me. I summoned every ounce of courage I could muster to pounce and capture something I couldn’t even see.

I dove onto the creature with my sack to cover and capture it.  I’m certain I’ve never had a greater surge of adrenaline in my life as I discovered the creature was much larger than my sack.  I crashed into its legs with my head and shoulders and was crumpling to the ground thinking I was about to be trampled to death by something huge, when I heard the strangest thing.

“You guys ready?” Uncle Tim’s voice made no sense as it came through the darkness. But in a few seconds I put it all together. “Your Aunt Debbie’s about to light our way.”

Just then, before I could answer, just when my brother and I were giving up all hope that we’d ever catch a snipe, I rolled over and looked up at him as a starburst of red lit up the sky behind him and the fireworks began.  We forgot all about the snipe hunt.

My brother and I only stayed with my Uncle Tim and Aunt Debbie for a week or so, but it was a great week. They showed us around and told us about the nearby plateau they called Tabletop Mountain. Their favorite of the local Legends, Black Bart, was the subject of numerous stories and songs.  Tim would recite and sing, trying to emulate the bourbon-mellowed voice of the legendary Waylon Jennings.  He was pretty good, too! I recall he and Aunt Debbie would put on an 8-track tape and sing along with the music anywhere. “Ladies love outlaws,” they sang on the way to show us the dilapidating ruins of a genuine ‘old west’ hotel where Black Bart was said to have spent his most notorious years.  The two of them, my aunt and uncle both, contributed immeasurably to my love of history and the natural world that summer.

My aunt and uncle gave me one of my first ‘observer’ experiences with cannabis. On the fourth of July they would have been smoking the previous year’s outdoor harvest, poorly stored in plastic bags and heavily laden with seeds. Scent is the most powerful stimulator of memories.  The distinctive aromas of hops and black pepper within the burning herb, both now and then, transported me like a time machine and I was there.

I love this plant.

Thanks for going on the journey with me.

*****

References:
Herz, R. S., Eliassen, J., Beland, S., & Souza, T. (2004). Neuroimaging evidence for the emotional potency of odor-evoked memory. Neuropsychologia, 42(3), 371-378. Toffolo, M. B., Smeets, M. A., & Van Den Hout, M. A. (2012). Proust revisited: odours as triggers of aversive memories. Cognition & emotion, 26(1), 83-92. Herz, R. S. (2004). A naturalistic analysis of autobiographical memories triggered by olfactory visual and auditory stimuli. Chemical Senses, 29(3), 217-224. Ward, P., Davies, B. J., & Kooijman, D. (2007). Olfaction and the retail environment: examining the influence of ambient scent. Service Business, 1(4), 295-316. Haberly, L. B., & Bower, J. M. (1989). Olfactory cortex: model circuit for study of associative memory?. Trends in neurosciences, 12(7), 258-264. Daniels, J. K., & Vermetten, E. (2016). Odor-induced recall of emotional memories in PTSD–review and new paradigm for research. Experimental neurology, 284, 168-180.

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