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Love, Loss, and Sensory Memories

Sensory memories may forever remind us of our attachment to someone.

Key points

  • Sensory cues can evoke memories of someone we have loved and lost.
  • Smell and taste are the most common priming sources that activate memories.
  • We may become habituated to a close relationship with someone, and come to believe we have undervalued them when they are gone.
  • Our sensory memories of a lost loved one may become activated during everyday activities.

Our senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, or hearing can take us on a journey into memory. Our memory-retrieval skills enable us to match the past with the present, just as our perceptual skills enable us to connect a stimulus in the present to an event in the past.

We often do not realize that implicit sensory memories activated by a sound, smell, tastes, sight, or touch may motivate the recollection of an attachment to someone. The smell of a lost loved one, the taste of a certain food reminiscent of them, or music that we once attached to the image of a particular person will activate memories. We may be unaware of what we are remembering even though we are likely to feel the gist of that memory and have an image of a departed person in our mind or a circumstance in which they were present.

Gustatory (Taste) Memory

In the early 1900’s, French novelist and essayist Marcel Proust introduced the term “involuntary memory.” In his novel In Search of Lost Time, he wrote about visiting his mother who had offered him tea and a petite madeleine. As he drank the tea along with tasting the madeleine he felt an exquisite pleasure, an all-powerful joy. Proust concluded that the sensation he felt was not in what he had consumed, but was within himself, connected to memories of his youth. He pointed out how a repetitive sensory experience—in this case, taste—can evoke the past and alter our perceptual and phenomenological responses.

Involuntary memories, also known as involuntary explicit memory, involuntary autobiographical memory, involuntary conscious memory, and “the Proust phenomenon,” occur without our conscious effort when certain cues are encountered in everyday life, such as taste, trigger recollections of the past (see Marčetić, 2017). Unfortunately, just as we do not “taste” a certain meal we have been eating for a month, we may also become habituated to a close relationship with someone, such as a spouse, partner, or parent. Thus, if they die or leave us we may believe we have undervalued the person most important to us, when it is merely that our brain had become familiar with them.

Because the sensory mechanisms induced by eating also include the context of consuming food, such as where and how food is eaten, and with whom, we might expect that the loss of a loved one could influence the survivor’s appetite and response to food in general. For example, if we always eat dinner with a spouse, partner, or child, their absence may be painfully conspicuous during mealtimes, aside from the general distress that can affect our appetite.

Olfactory (Smell-Related) Memory

Loss-related memories of our experiences with smells can become activated by present circumstances that match stored information. As a result of memories, various odors can increase our heart rate or elevate our blood pressure. On the other hand, something we smell can also lower our heart rate and blood pressure, thereby creating a sense of well-being or calmness.

If certain smells can affect us physiologically and emotionally in our waking life, can they also influence our sleep? Disrupted sleep and stress are often cited among people whose romantic partner dies. In an international study across diverse cultures, sleep disturbances were among the most frequently reported bereavement symptoms (Simon et al., 1999). We may attribute these symptoms to many causes, but we may not consider how the absence of a loved one’s smell plays a role. According to recent research, the scent of a loved one may influence our response to stress and how well we sleep (M. K. Hofer & Chen, 2020; McBurney et al., 2006).

Echoic (Auditory) Memory

Running deep in our memories are the sounds of words or music. A particular song, the sound of a voice, or certain noises are cues that can activate memories. The resonance we experience from certain vocal tones and rhythms, as well as the irritation we might feel from them, result from implicit and explicit memories of early experiences.

Auditory memories are enduring. As an example, listening to music from a certain era brings back memories of our experiences at the time. Upon losing a loved one, hearing a particular piece of shared music can activate joyful memories that lead to a re-experiencing of feelings around the loss.

Iconic (Sight) Memory

Whereas one person may be attuned to sounds, another may be vigilant about what is seen. Some researchers have found that our memory for pictures of visual objects is stronger than recognition memory for sounds (Gloede et al., 2017). Interestingly, auditory memory is generally more long-lasting, and visual memory seems to have a larger capacity; however, different experiences in our lives with images and sounds may influence the way our memory performs (Gloede et al, 2017).

One of the difficult challenges for people in mourning involves visual cues that trigger memories. A photograph, the belongings of a deceased loved one, or a place where some emotional intimacy was shared can activate memories of pleasurable experiences that result in a grief response. As with other sensory inputs, shortly after a loss a photograph may trigger positive memories that are concurrently very painful. Our level of tolerance for exposing ourselves to visual stimuli that trigger memories of the deceased changes over time and with new life experiences. For some people, visual reminders are comforting, which leads them to hold on to the possessions of a deceased loved one.

Haptic (Touch) Memory

Unlike other senses, touch requires bodily contact. Sensations of touch arise from the skin, muscles, and other interior senses, yet the skin is considered the primary sense organ whereby touch perception is experienced (Schwartz & Krantz, 2016). “Haptic perception” refers to the process of identifying an object through touch. Among the many things that produce longing in the bereaved, hugs from the person who has died are one of the most frequently mentioned in my psychotherapy practice. The absence of touch is also prominent in pet loss.

The physical history shared with a loved one that involves touching, smiling, holding, mutual gaze, erotic or sexual encounters, and emotional attunement leaves traces in one’s own body and lived space. When these threads of mutual attachment dissolve through loss, the survivor’s pain may bear a resemblance to the phantom pain experienced by someone with an amputated limb (Fuchs, 2018).

[This post contains excerpts from my forthcoming book, Grief Isn't Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]


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