I recently read a lengthy article about the science of memory. We still really don’t know too much about how our brains work, and the article spent a lot of time discussing neurons, hormones, dopamine and various other organic chemistry that you really did need to be a brain surgeon to grasp. According to my transcript from the University of Guelph, I actually have several credits in bio-chemistry, but alas, I have retained little of the fraction that I understood 30 years ago, when I apparently passed it. (I enjoyed BIOCHEM1 so much, that I took it twice!) What I did understand though, was the concept that our memories are triggered by all five of our senses – sight, smell, sound, taste and touch.
I have great memories. Not a great memory, mind you, but I’ve had some truly great experiences. I tend to forget about specific events, places, or even people, until some stimuli triggers one of my senses and it all comes rushing back. A song, a smell, even something as mundane as the sight of a specific car, can take you to a spot, a time, a person – a memory.
Have you ever been walking through a crowd and you get a whiff of perfume, and you spin around looking for someone you haven’t seen in decades? Or you smell your grandfather’s pipe? Or bacon cooking? Last summer, I walked into a musty cabin in the woods, and just because of the smell of pine boards and breakfast cooking, I spent the rest of the day thinking about a camp on Lake Couchiching in 1983, which, in turn, led me to thinking about a dance and a girl and a song and the smell of a campfire and the sound of loons on the lake and a conversation about how different cultures looked at the same constellations, but saw different things… Memories that I’d utterly forgotten came back in vivid detail – just from the smell of that cabin.
Same thing happens every time I walk into a barn. There are lots of smells to trigger memories: hay, diesel exhaust, beet pulp, leather tack, horse liniment and, of course, the scent of horses. Anyone who thinks that horses smell badly has never really worked with horses. And anyone who thinks that horses all smell the same has never truly loved a horse. Krista can identify any of our ponies in the dark, by their sound, smell and gait. Songs on the radio will remind me of certain summers or specific students or even a particular day of shipping horses in the truck.
Before our daughter could walk, we’d keep her entertained in her car seat, while I spent my weekends going back and forth between the barn and various horse shows (often multiple times per day), by playing a cassette tape of James Brown’s greatest hits. No Wheels on the Bus for Aniela – Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. A Green Day CD got me through the early years of Pony Club. To this day, every time I hear Bullet in a Bible, I check my rear view mirror to make sure the trailer’s okay. In the same way that some girlfriends and boyfriends have “their song” – each truck and trailer combo and I have “our album.”
The sound of snow sliding off of an arena roof feels like broken ribs to me. The smell of antifreeze reminds me of overheating pickup trucks and passing a rendering plant triggers memories of what a bunch of kids can do to the interior of a vehicle on a hot day parked beside a show ring. Nothing like a half-eaten Gogurt left under the seat for a few hours in the sun. The sight of a halter hanging on a gate post, brings to mind every pony that I ever put it on.
As I said before, I have a lot of great memories – of our family riding, of Krista’s students, their parents, barn owners, horse shows and even riding myself. The memories aren’t neatly filed away in my brain, like a library using some grey matter version of the Dewey Decimal System. Rather, they’re jumbled in there like a random pile of odds and ends in a hoarder’s basement. And every once in a while, I hear a sound, catch a scent, or taste a great horse show breakfast sandwich – and a memory comes rushing back. I love re-living those moments, and if you’re nearby during one of the very few times that I’m quiet – that’s probably what I’m doing.