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50 Memory Triggers To Unlock Your Best Stories

By Melissa Brown, MD

memory triggers for personal stories

The Secret To Connecting With Your Audience

Wanna know the secret to creating great emails, blog posts, speeches, or podcast episodes?

Stories!

Telling personal stories is the best secret to creating a connection with your audience, whether it’s oral stories as in speeches, podcasts, or audio content, or written stories in emails, blog posts, or social content.

A good story, well-told, will help create a bond between the storyteller and the audience. This is not only an emotional bond but a chemical bond, too.

There’s scientific evidence that stories elicit a biochemical hormone called oxytocin in the brain of the audience members who are hearing or reading a story.

Oxytocin is also called the ‘love drug’ or the ‘cuddle hormone,’ since it’s associated with human mother-child bonding and breastfeeding. The presence of oxytocin makes people feel more connected, trusting, and empathetic with the storyteller.

Everyone Has Stories!

But what if you’re like a lot of people and you think you have no interesting stories?

You may feel like your life is boring. That nothing exciting ever happens to you–nothing that you can turn into a story to share.

Well, first of all, that’s not true. You DO have great stories. We all do.

Everyone has little slice-of-life moments that can be turned into compelling stories to share in your writing.

Store Your Stories Somewhere

vintage library card catalog

The trick is to remember your stories when you want to share them.

The best way to recall your stories is to record a few details of each story in a story bank or library–always recording them in the same place. This way, you’ll always know where to find a particular story when it’s time to do some writing.

Recording a few snippets of your stories will help jog your memory. You can then choose one of the stories when it’s time to sit down and write.

Trello works well for collecting your stories.

A special notebook or journal works well, too. This could be the place where you quickly write a line or two to jog your memory in the future about a particular story. Or use it as a diary and write notes about your day every evening.

You can also use online cloud storage, like DropBox or Evernote. I like Evernote for its easy indexing ability for your stories.

Remembering All Your Stories

How do you remember all your great stories?

Here’s a tip that helps jog your memory banks. Use a book of writing prompts to randomly pick out a prompt. Thinking about how you’ll answer that prompt will send you on a trip down memory lane. Chances are you’ll be able to remember at least one slice-of-life story for that prompt.

Also, any time something triggers a memory from your past or something happens in your day-to-day life, write it down or record it digitally. You don’t have to write the whole story down until you’re writing it for a purpose, like in an email or blog post. Just get down the bones for now.

Using Science To Trigger Memories

In her book, Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell, author Jude Stewart writes about memories triggered by scent. She describes the sense of smell as a form of “emotional time travel.” Her opening sentence in the book speaks volumes; “Smell is a tesseract, collapsing space and time. It unlocks memories and grants us access to scenes we can only enter in imagination.”

Scientific studies confirm what author Stewart describes; that scents are a powerful memory trigger. There are several explanations for that, having to do with the area of the brain responsible for emotions and the sense of smell. These scent-triggered memories can be more vivid and realistic when an actual scent triggers the brain’s specialized memory banks. 

Until the unlikely time comes that we can deliver actual scents via blog posts, let’s use this piece of science to trigger some of your hidden memories that might have been lying dormant for way too long. If you want to actually experience these memory trigger odors in real life with the real smell, please share your experience in the comments below.

For now, just use your imagination to slowly conjure up the scent of the following list of 50 items–one at a time. I’ve even created a workbook for you to use to go through the list.

50 Scent Memory Triggers

What memories are sparked by these aromas? 

  1. Melted chocolate
  2. Chalkdust
  3. Fresh-mown grass
  4. Lilacs in the springtime
  5. Suntan lotion
  6. Pipe smoke
  7. Sweat
  8. Horses
  9. Chlorine swimming pools
  10. Wet dogs
  11. Rain
  12. Fresh-baked apple pie
  13. Sour milk
  14. The pages in a brand-new book
  15. Freshly turned-over dirt
  16. Rubbing alcohol
  17. Campfires
  18. Fish
  19. Mothballs (I don’t recommend inhaling these, though, since they’re toxic.)
  20. Oranges
  21. Cigarette smoke
  22. Rosemary
  23. Lemon zest
  24. Fresh-brewed coffee
  25. Roasted nuts
  26. Peppermint
  27. Burning rubber
  28. Roasted garlic
  29. Fresh tar or asphalt
  30. Licorice or anise
  31. Basil
  32. Freshly popped popcorn
  33. Burnt toast
  34. Pumpkin Pie Spice
  35. Cedar
  36. Vicks Vaporub
  37. Carnations
  38. Peanut butter
  39. Baby powder
  40. Bleach
  41. Crayons
  42. Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies
  43. Rising yeast dough
  44. Banana
  45. Beer
  46. Cloves
  47. Vanilla
  48. Roses
  49. Bacon
  50. Lavender

You may be able to fill up your story bank for a long time into the future with just these 50 scent prompts.

Please share your experience with these memory sparks. Leave a comment below to let me know which of these 50 was the most powerful trigger for you. How many stories did you come up with?

If you love the idea of collecting your stories with these scent prompts, be sure to get your copy of the workbook I created.  Just click on the button below.

This blog post may contain recommendations for products, services, and events. In some cases, the links provided are affiliate links. That means that if you click on the link and then buy a product at the site recommended, you won't pay a penny more and the author may earn compensation as a thank you. You can be assured that any of the promoted products have personally been used by or researched by the author for you and found to be high quality before being recommended. 

About the author

Dr. Melissa Brown's career journey has always had an element of teaching. After retirement from clinical pediatric practice, Dr. Brown has taught and mentored as a healthy lifestyle coach, author, and speaker. She currently teaches solopreneurs and coaches how to stop being the world's best-kept secret. Her mission is to help you: Create great content. Impact people. Change the world.

  • I never thought about keeping track of stories and having them on-standby! Such a simple idea, yet, it is brilliant! This will help so much with my project planning.

    This is a great way to keep track of ideas and make sure that they are readily available when you need them. This will help me to be more organized and efficient in my work. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tip!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Paul! I just love using stories when I write–to share an experience or lesson and to highlight an emotion/feeling that I know my audience is going through. I have dozens of stories stashed in my writing closet, indexed with trigger words to help me remember them when I need a story to share. I hope you implement this tip and hope it serves you as well as it has for me.

  • Hi Melissa! As a trauma recovery therapist, I often use senses, including smell, to unlock traumatic memories for processing and healing. I love the ideas of using the same skills to relive beautiful and happy memories too! Thank you!!

    • Thank you for your comment, Karen. Yes–it’s so true how the senses, especially the sense of smell, can trigger all kinds of memories–both positive and negative ones. Thank you for the work you do in the world helping people process and heal from trauma. Your work is so needed. ❤️

  • This is really cool, Melissa! Storytelling is a big part of how I communicate and connect with my readers so having ways to trigger memories and create new stories is so great. Especially with my bad memory 😂 (and how cool would it be to send scents through our posts?!)

  • First, I love that you have a picture of a card catalog to symbolize storing (in a well-organized manner) our memories and stories so we can pull them out and use them. [said by the bibliophile and trained librarian lol ]
    Yes, I use Trello to keep memories or stories for content purposes – but hadn’t thought to include keywords, word triggers, even emotional or sense triggers!

    I have childhood memories of the sweet cherry smoke from my father’s pipe and how much better it smelled than his cigarettes. The rituals involved with the pipe, how smooth the burled wood was. And later when my now-husband went through a pipe-smoking phase, it brought back the pleasant smells and memories of childhood. I haven’t thought of it in years, but you’re right that focusing on the unique smell brought the thoughts back.

  • The smell of Colgate toothpaste always transports me back to a weekend when I was 6, away on a camping trip with my Brownies Troop. We didn’t use Colgate at home but my mom bought a travel size for the trip, it doesn’t matter how many times in my life I may have used that toothpaste, it always took me to the cabin bathrooms where I brushed my teeth.

    I am so excited to use your prompts to see what comes up and how I can use it! Thanks, Melissa, for sharing this.

  • It was great going through the list! Some of them were huge memory triggers! I just watched a video last night on how Starbucks tapped into our scent/taste memory triggers to make Pumpkin Spiced Latte a top-seller. (I personally have zero holiday memory association with pumpkin or spice, so it makes total sense I never buy it! lol)

  • Very cool Idea. Chalk Dust made me think of grade school. Pumpkin pie spice a pumpkin patch that we used to go to when I was kids and they had this really good pumpkin spice dip with vanilla wafers. Horses – riding horses on vacation and we even got to swim with them. Yay! Fun Memories.

  • What a great post. I need to come back to this post and see if I can think of something for all the prompts. I know a few of them have already sparked something. I definitely need to get better a keeping a log of all my tales 🙂

  • Melissa, I love this idea of memory triggers. I started a few years ago trying to digitally file and tag interesting stories. I learned this from a John Maxwell seminar I attended. I am not great at resourcing these stories yet. This is a great reminder. Thanks for sharing!

  • Fascinating… as a person who has had almost no sense of smell for most of my life I find myself struggling to put together memories with smells. I honestly didn’t realize that I had no sense of smell until I was grown and I questioned a drink and someone said smell it and see. I had no idea Dr. Pepper had a scent. That being said I have smelled some things, especially during my last pregnancy with hormone therapy being needed I smelled many things for the first time. I can maybe substitute taste for some of these things.

  • Love this post, Melissa. I never think about using the sense of smell as a way to recall stories but yet, reading through the list several of the smells reminded me of so many stories! Signed up to get the workbook – can’t wait to work through it.

  • Thank you, Melissa. I do have a file for blog topics; but you have given me several ideas for making that file more useful.
    You have shared some wonderful scent triggers. What a wonderful idea for helping people tell their stories.

  • Melissa, I can add another smell to your list. Every time I smell Old Spice shaving lotion I can see my dad, sitting in his favourite easy chair. The smell instantly brings back the memories even though he’s been gone for many, many years.

  • This post is amazing! I’ve known for years the power of a story but never really thought about using smells to trigger story ideas. My first memory of this was when my sister and I would head to the beach on weekends as teenagers and slather on the Hawaiian Tropics suntan lotion. Just thinking about the smell of coconuts brought back those happy memories. I’m happy to share your post with my Facebook group; this is SO helpful!

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