Opinions, Column

Soap, Songs, and Rollercoasters: The Power of Associative Memory

Every single day we create new memories. And in doing so, we subconsciously intertwine specific experiences with our surroundings. Associative memory is an incredible psychological ability that preserves our memories in sensory experiences, from the song that defines your childhood to the smell that reminds you of home. 

I’d consider myself a relatively sentimental person, but reminiscence has taken on a starring role in my life recently. And with my background knowledge about associative memory, I have a natural tendency to purposefully attach my emotions to both my physical and intangible surroundings. 

As I embark on the rollercoaster that is college, I continually find myself reminiscing—almost wishing that I could be off the ride and back on the ground again. I feel as though I’m caught between the carefree curiosity of childhood and the impending responsibilities of adulthood. No matter how much I enjoy the twists and turns of the college rollercoaster, a fearful undertone of the unexpected has me periodically wishing I could be back on stable ground.

The revelation I just shared was brought about by nothing other than a bar of soap. And not just any soap, but an almond-scented bar that sat amid a neatly arranged row of shea butter rectangles in a grocery store. In one swift second, this smell transported me back to the kitchen of my childhood home, with the aroma of my mom’s anise cookies wafting from the warm oven. These cookies, baked only once a year in my house, remind me of Christmas and the clouds of powdered sugar that used to coat my shirt when I would turn the blender on too fast. 

The soft glow of Christmas lights, the laughter that echoes on Christmas Eve, and the wafting of vanilla, almond, and anise all evoke flashbacks of my childhood. And sometimes, when you’re away from home, those little reminders are the exact comforts you need.

With my uncertain future ahead of me, I find myself constantly turning to memories of past stability for comfort. My life is a jumble of nostalgia and excitement, an intersection of finding familiarity in the past and promise in the future.

But despite these pleasant memories, there are downsides to nostalgia. Nostalgia seems to involve a conflict between the solace we find in memories and the longing we have for experiences that cannot be recreated. While it has a different meaning for everyone due to our unique life experiences, an element of wistfulness seems to be universally interwoven with nostalgia. 

Retrospection is an intrinsic part of the human experience, but at what cost? It can be so easy to get caught up in wishing that we could relive the past that we sometimes forget to enjoy the present.

No matter how many times I listen to “Teardrops On My Guitar”—which, strangely enough, was my favorite song as a preschooler—I’ll never again be the joyful little girl dancing around the living room, completely oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics. Although I yearn for the blissful ignorance of that moment, I will never have it back. 

Now, more than 15 years later, “Teardrops On My Guitar” has a new meaning. My friends and I have screamed this song in my car far too many times to count. While the song’s dulcet melody sparked my initial obsession as a child, its all-too-familiar sentiments about unrequited emotion earned the song a permanent spot on my senior year playlist. 

This is the beauty of associative memory, and it’s not the same as nostalgia. It is not just a wishful reminder of the past, it also involves engaging with the future. One song can serve as a constant in your life, collecting connections to an intricate web of experiences and emotions.

So, look to the past for comfort, but create new memories in the present and propel your future forward. Enjoy the rollercoaster while it lasts and know that you’ll eventually stand on solid ground again. No matter how uncertain the possibilities of the future may seem, know that there are some elements of your life, whether they be songs or smells or physical objects, that will always be there to remind you of the joys that life has brought and will keep bringing.

February 28, 2023