By Jillian Friedman on Monday, April 6, 2015
Two years ago, I worked on a project for the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series. The topic of the series was Memory. Because I have worked with my sense of smell doing olfactive development, and our sense of smell links directly to the part of the brain that governs our memory and emotions, I presented the idea of using scent somehow in the series.
The evening’s event called "Building a Memory Palace", was lead by the brilliant and eccentric Ed Cooke, a memory champion from the UK, columnist for the London Times and author of Remember, Remember (Penguin, 2008), who had trained journalist and author Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein, to compete in the US memory championship, and he won!
The Memory Palace is a technique used since ancient Rome, credited to a poet named Simonides of Creos who while attending a banquet was called away when the banquet ceiling crumbled. Simonides realized through the use of his own personal mnemonic anchors, he was able to recollect who sat where and thus identify the corpses who were beyond recognition.
Cooke showed us that anchoring a memory is the best way to remember, and that scents can be a mnemonic tool to help retain information that can ultimately become part of ones own memory palace.
We scented each of floors of the Rubin museum, with a different scent, in order to anchor our memories as we were brought and taught to memorize, all of the elements that make up the wheel of life. Four lessons on four floors of the museum, the first floor was scented with a vanilla/spice blend during which we learned the twelve aspects of dependent origination that are essential to the concept of Buddhism. The second floor, which holds the library, was scented in green tea during which we learned the six realms of existence. The third floor, which features the Buddha’s Shrine, was scented in a rich creamy sandalwood and we learned about the Eight Great Fears. And finally, the last floor was scented with jasmine to remember the marks of Buddha. The results were surprising in guest’s abilities to remember beyond what they thought they were capable of remembering. When we let go of our own stories about our limitations, me may surprise ourselves as we connect with something greater.
When we can embody an experience by means of sensual association, the experience becomes part of our cells and our memories in a way that goes far beneath the surface. Sri Brahmananda teaches us that we are so much more than our surface. That we need to actually dive deeply into the depth of the waters within to remember, to forget what we think we know and to discover what lies beyond our human disguise.