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Discuss the connection between smell and memory in an anthropological way.

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Anthropology of the senses or sensory anthropology is concerned with the relationship between culture and perception through the body’s organs. Different cultures may understand the concept of “sense” differently as they associate particular perceptions with specific organs, and may not consider that there are a different number than the five senses traditionally identified in Western society.

One of the paradoxes of sensory perception is the difficulty, if not impossibility, of disassociating sense from memory. Because we must translate perception into language in order to explain or classify it, all sensory perceptions may be considered to have occurred in the past. That is, in the interval between having the experience and formulating it into words through our brains, we are always speaking of the past. In considering the relationship between language and perception, anthropology is indebted to phenomenology.

“Smell,” or sensory perception through the nose, often brings forth vivid memories because of its association with food and bodily functions. Because culturally distinct foods become part of our lives from an early age, and babies may be in a food preparation area even before they begin eating, childhood memories are particularly likely to be evoked by smell. Further, because aromas and odors reach us sooner and require a different kind of contact than taste, they are more readily accessible than taste.

A recent ethnographic study of sense and memory conducted in English restaurants found significant association of smell and memory (Stevenson 2014, cited in PLOS [Public Library of Science] blogs). For example, one participation from Tunis identified strong memory stimulation from aromas in one café, even though the food prepared there was not specifically Tunisian cuisine.

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Discuss this in an anthropological way: Are smell and memory connected?

When studying a phenomenon in a anthropological way, we are looking at the study of humans, looking at issues like social factors and culture. Thus, when examining whether smell and memory are connected, you might look at the different ways in which we perceive smell by culture.

For example, in Westernized society, we are primarily visually orientated, and public areas tend to be more fragrance-free. Therefore, when these people encounter scents along with memorable visual stimuli, they might be able to better connect scents with certain memories in their mind.

Additionally, you might also consider how memories are formed. When strong emotions occur, memories are more likely to form. Therefore, when people are having strong emotions, such as the excitement of going to see a movie as a child, smelling the scent of popcorn might be ingrained in your mind. You may find, even years later, that smelling popcorn instantly triggers the memory of going to the movies!

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