Scents and memories at the hospital



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Scents and memories at the hospital - Stanford

There's a pivotal scene in the 2007 Pixar movie Ratatouille, in which the restaurant critic Anton Ego takes a first bite of the movie's titular food. He is then whisked back to a moment in his childhood, during which his mom provides love and comfort through a helping of her homemade ratatouille. This scene is a homage to Marcel Proust's seminal "Madeleine Episode," as described In Search of Lost Time, published almost a century before the movie's release. Both the memories triggered by the ratatouille and the madeleine cookie dipped in tea are illustrative of involuntary memory, a process in which everyday cues stir remembrances of the past.

For me, involuntary memories are most triggered by scent. Olfaction can be considered an ancient sense -- traced back to the chemoreceptors found on rudimentary bacteria. However, despite (or perhaps because of ) its antiquity, I find smell to be the most difficult sense to capture with words. Still, all of us can remember a moment in which a whiff transported us away to another time and place.

In medicine, interesting smells are in no short supply. Every day, the first thing that I encounter when the hospital doors open is the omnipresent smell of antiseptic. To most people, this scent likely triggers involuntary memories of negative events -- the illness of a loved one, for example. For me, the first wave of antiseptic reminds me of my previous hospital rotations and prompts me to be ready to work for my patients and for my team.