Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.

                               ~Diane Ackerman

How much do we remember from our childhood? This is one of the questions examined recently by Canadian research scientists.

I’ve just finished reading Blanks for the Memories  which highlights aspects of the research originally published in the journal Child Development.

Neuroscientists believe that there are different kinds of memories, stored in many different neural circuits. “We can’t go to a particular spot in the brain to see where our third birthday party is stored,” says Dr. Hudson….

Scientists think the brain’s prefrontal cortex processes experiences, using sensory input from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, sorts them into categories, and tags the various memory fragments with specific associations (smells of home, friends from camp, bugs, a pet, for example).

Reading this made me realize how important the senses are to unlocking childhood memories. I must admit I could do a better job of incorporating sensory questions into my interviews. To get me pointed in the right direction, I’ve written a few sample “sensory” questions below.

I tested some out on my mother and she had great fun. It turns out that a taste she strongly associates with her childhood is jelly beans. Her mother would carefully count out five each for her and her two siblings. Today this may not sound like much but during The Depression jelly beans were a real treat!

How much do you incorporate sense-related questions into your interviews? Do you have a favorite “sensory” question?


  • What do you remember most about your mother’s appearance?
  • Paint a picture for me of where you lived – the weather, terrain.


  • What sounds do you associate with your childhood? What memories do they evoke?
  • What piece of music  do you remember from your childhood?


  • What was your favorite food when you were a child?
  • What tastes do you associate with your childhood?


  • What do you recall were things you loved to touch as a child?
  • What do you remember liking to run your hands over or through?


  • What are some of the pleasant smells  you associate with your childhood? What memories do they bring back?
  • What smells from your childhood weren’t pleasant? What memories do they evoke?

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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7 Responses to Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.

  1. Dan,
    I strongly agree that using the five senses makes for some excellent memories. I use them in many of my writing workshops and exploring them in my new book on Ethical Wills. The best part is that using the senses in writing makes the stories come alive.

  2. Pingback: Blogtalk: Using Music, Memories, and Writing — Writing Through Life

  3. Using the senses in a group writing exercise is a lot of fun and an easy start for memories. I use senses in grief writing about their loved one, so the memories are related to that person they want to remember. First I offer the sense, and give some examples, such as smells: coffee, perfume,mowed grass. I have participants create just a list of associated words in a couple of minutes. After all the senses, then we share words aloud. More memories are evoked by the group discussion. Then participants choose a predominate memory on one of the sense words in their list and write a short narrative. The senses create a powerful and personal story. Later, the list of words is available for additional stories or description. ~Joan

    • @StorybooksForHealing. Thanks for your comment, Joan. The work you’re doing sounds quite wonderful. I’m glad you’ve acquainted me with it. I’m sure some of my readers will also be interested in your grief writing program.

  4. Hi Dan, Wonderful article – as usual. Thanks for your continued sharing! How do I get permission to use this article as a handout at a training workshop for nursing home and senior center staffs May 23. Thanks!

    • @Eileen Kent. Thank you for your kind comments. You are welcome to use anything I write on my blog. All I ask is that you credit me, provide a link to my blog and not change the content in any manner. Thanks for asking. Good luck with your workshop!

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