It happens every time I eat hummus. Or drink rose tea. Or speak Hebrew. Or breathe the aroma of seasoned meat grilling on a Halal street cart. I float back to another time and another place, extraordinary sensory experiences that will always remind me of being somewhere else – if just for a split second.
Of course, mental pictures are invaluable. Vivid mental memories often seem so current (a la “Feels like just yesterday that…”), but those don’t hold a token to the memories my tastebuds have of Israeli hummus or my nose has of the scent from meat cooked in Middle Eastern spices. The mental images pale in comparison to the memories stored in the physical senses.
We hear it all the time about so many different things: “It’s like riding a bike.” Not necessarily in this context, but it’s a similar idea. Our tastebuds remember the unique foods we ate. Our noses remember the new smells we hadn’t inhaled before. Our mouths remember the movements of a foreign language we hadn’t previously practiced. Mental pictures are invaluable, but they’re just that: pictures.
I’ve always been one to learn by interacting with something: by doing something. We learn to drive a car by driving a car. I learned to shoot and edit video by doing it. Looking at a diagram or reading instructions isn’t nearly as effective for me as physically performing an action. By doing and interacting with something, we become familiar with it – I know my brain records it like a video that plays back the next time I’m in that situation.
I recently had to take a refresher course in CPR since receiving certification last year through my job. I’ll admit, I had forgotten most of what the instructors told us. 30 compressions, 2 breaths. But as they said, the act of performing CPR is one of pure muscle memory. Once I did it, I remembered. As it goes, practice makes perfect. Memories are a weird thing.
I am certainly no scientist – while I minored in psychology in college, I am admittedly no expert in the field. My perspective is based solely on my observations from my own experiences; something that occurs to me each time I have one of those brief moments. Surely that’s something people can relate to: being reminded of a faraway place or random memory just from tasting or smelling something unique. And for me, those memories are far more powerful in connecting me to my past experiences.