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Why Objects and Memories are Forever Connected

By Christian Roemer

If you’ve watched Titanic, you know that the story is basically about Rose recalling her memories of the famous boat sinking. The reason that she’s suddenly so overcome with reminiscing is because she’s confronted with the Heart of the Ocean, a necklace she received from her then fiancé. The entire movie is spurred from the fact that her memories were suddenly jostled loose when she was reconnected with that object from so long ago. 


Even though scientists don’t really know much about memory, or exactly how they’re formed, or exactly what they are, there’s no question that certain objects can make us remember things we haven’t thought of in years. In Rose’s case, over 8 decades had passed since her fateful time with Jack, but her memories came roaring back to life when she saw the Heart of the Ocean.



So what exactly was going on? Well, unfortunately, scientists don’t really know. They do know that out of all of our senses, smell seems to be the most closely linked with memories. Pretty much anybody can attest to that. One accidental sniff of an ex’s perfume or cologne can send you down an existential sadness that you hadn’t felt since you broke up.


What seems to be occurring, as much as scientists can figure, is that your memories are stored pretty closely in your brain to your senses. Since memories aren’t just pictures saved on the hard drive of your brain – they’re a culmination of perception that’s closely linked with the things going on around you and in your mind – experiencing a similar feeling can bring back memories because those two things are stored together. Scientists hypothesize that smell receptors are most closely linked to the area of your brain that stores your memories, so scents in particular can quickly transport you to memory lane.




How memories are associated with physical objects becomes much more murky. Scientists call objects that elicit memories mnemonic, but they’re not sure what causes some objects to be more mnemonic than others. It’s possible that things we find important or attach significance to actually imprint themselves in our memory along with the other stuff that was going on at the time. For example, you might pet your favorite stuffed animal and be transported back to when you were a kid and you imagined that it saved your from a monster that was hiding under the bed.


What seems to be true is that sensory data only elicits memories when something else happened in conjunction with it. For example, you probably smell millions of smells every day, but you only remember ones that were extraordinary. Usually those extraordinary events would be memorable in themselves, so when you add the extra sensory stuff to it, they become connected forever. Just like that special Bath and Body Works scent that your ex wore in high school.




The truth is that there’s still a ton of research that needs to be done about memories and how they interact with objects and the things around you. For now, I just know that I could go without ever smelling Curve for women ever again...for personal reasons. Rose’s sudden recollection of events on the Titanic probably had less to do with the Heart of the Ocean specifically, and more to do with the intense connections in her mind that it stirred when she held it in her hands again. 

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