Scents, Sense & Incense: a trip down memory lane

Our Bristol Wellbeing College runs informative courses and workshops for learners receiving support from Bristol Mental Health Services, and their carers. This week’s contribution comes to us from David Marks, who wrote the piece in response to aroma-induced memories.

We use aroma in several of our workshops; it is a powerful yet oft neglected way of exercising sensory awareness. In what has become known as the ‘Proust Phenomenon’ (since Marcel Proust completed his 1922 novel In Search of Lost Time, in which the aroma of a madeleine cake dipped in tea sparks the character’s journey into his deepest childhood memories), the power of our most primordial scent to re-connect us with emotions and memories is of scientific and therapeutic interest. Largely, the phenomenon is attributed to the olfactory (sense of smell) system’s direct link with our brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for emotional reactions and memory-making.

In this ‘Writing with Memory’ workshop, participants were given pouches of spices and herbs to blind smell and write down whatever came to mind in response. Sometimes, the reaction is immediate: it’s the scent of the kitchen at Christmas, or grandma’s garden after the rain. Other times, we experience a fleeting sense of recognition that remains just beyond the reach of memory, yet summons an emotion as tangible as it was in the moment we are trying to recall. Sometimes, reliving the emotions of a happy memory is all we need. The places and people of our fondest memories may change and even disappear; the images we hold of them may warp, and with time, those feelings re-invoked by a scent or a taste become more truth than memory.


Brought in over the vastness of time, the scent punctuates my immediacy, enveloping and seeping into every fibre of our being. Carried in as a whisper, its message loud and clear. To defy it, would tear your soul from the body.

Possessed and in our many, our journey over distances begins. A spreading colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. One beating heart.

We are funnelled into the expansive vista of this sacred plateau. The scene is dressed, flailing in the breeze, a riot and kaleidoscope of colours. The hypnotic, rhythmic ascension of pounding drums against the backdrop and smell of ancient fire that screams in agony.

We anchor ourselves to this launchpad. The guttural chanting pays pause to all life. The shaman enters.

David Marks has collaborated with the Bristol Wellbeing College to develop our ‘Me, My Diagnosis & I’ course. He is currently working with Second Step to create a psychologically and trauma informed training programme while studying BA English Literature at the University of Bristol.

To find out more about our writing courses and other courses available from the Bristol Wellbeing College, and eligibility, visit:

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