The Smell of Autumn

Did you know that olfaction is more closely linked to memory than any other sense? In simple terms, this explains why it’s the ’scent’ of autumn that can trigger an emotional response - a visceral, split-second response within the amygdala and hippocampus areas of the brain (the zones where emotional memory and associations are stored).

The way we feel in response is very personal - being linked to our own life experiences. For some, it’s melancholy and for others serene or even magical - for us all, these associations were stamped on our brains back as children (perhaps explaining why we feel that urge to kick leaves when faced with a crispy pile by our feet!). Sometimes we get the feeling before we recognise the source - and when we’ve lost the sense of smell for whatever reason, it can be very disconcerting.

The dominant smells of autumn are down to the natural world beginning to hunker down for winter. The breaking-down of organic compounds as fallen leaves begin to decay and decompose - releasing gas into the air. The fungus present in our soil (geotrichum candidum) helps to aide this process - eroding deceased organisms and releasing chemical organic compounds which themselves contribute to the familiar smell of autumn. This leaf litter mulch is an ideal overwintering habitat to butterfly and moth pupae, reptiles, worms, microbes, larvae and even small mammals - and a source of food, bedding material and shelter to other living creatures. It’s also full of valuable nutrients in all stages of decomposition - so try to resist the urge to rake those leaves and get down to breathe in that glorious aroma instead!

Why not stop and pause on a walk with your children this week, and sniff the air. After the rain you may get the scent of petrichor (the smell of the earth after rain), which is evocative to many and a great word to teach a child. Take time to identify what you can smell, and the way it makes you feel. Ask the children for their own descriptive words and use the opportunity to chat about your own childhood autumn memories, about what makes this season so special and what comes next. Dwell in the present and soak it up - this is a transitional period and winter is just around the corner, waiting to turn our noses pink and remind us of the festive season ahead.

Happy sniffing!