Poignant. Mental illness remains with us. People may no longer be in institutional care but we must not forget in Ireland, our history and the fact that our psychiatric services are brutally underfunded, under staffed. Too many of our homeless and people in prison are lost sight of. We all know, if we choose to, where the psychiatric services are failing another human being.

The Guardian – Back to homeThe Guardian: news website of the year

New Zealand

The paddock that became a grave for the people New Zealand branded ‘defective’ – and chose to forget

Illustration of a wooden cross standing alone in a paddock with trees and hills in background
The New Zealand royal commission into abuse in care heard that hundreds of patients of Tokanui psychiatric hospital were buried in unmarked graves in a paddock. Illustration: Avinash Weerasekera

Nearly 500 patients consigned to the Tokanui psychiatric hospital died there, their only legacy a memorial wall in a field

Tess McClure in Waikato Fri 29 Jul 2022 20.00 BST

It was, remembers Caroline Arrell, just another paddock. Grazed by sheep under the wide Waikato sky, it gave no hint of its past – except perhaps that her labrador, Lucy, had an odd aversion to it. The dog would veer away from it, skirting the fence line.

But out riding her horse, Alice, on a quiet Sunday in early 1991, Arrell was about to discover a grave on the 200-hectare farm she called home. Beneath the feet of the sheep, under the grass and soil, nearly 500 people lay buried.

“I jumped Alice over the fence into this paddock and she tripped and fell, her rear foreleg disappeared down a hole,” she says. “I tumbled off. We were both OK, except I tumbled against a hard piece of rock – or so I thought. It was a metal plaque.”

Black and white image of Tokanui hospital photographed from the air in 1963
An aerial view of Tokanui hospital in 1963. Photograph: National Library of New Zealand

Arrell pulled the plaque from the overgrown grass. It identified the resting place of a single woman – the only marker in the paddock. In reality, hundreds of others lay beneath the grass, their graves unmarked.

‘They were human beings, for God’s sake’

The graves were dug to receive patients who died at Tokanui hospital, a state-run institution that housed New Zealanders with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

While the last burials at the graveyard were recorded in the mid-60s, the institution remained open until the late 1990s, with much of its surrounding grounds – including the gravesite – converted into farmland. Like its graveyard, the institution slipped mostly out of public memory after it was shut down in 1998. Now, New Zealand is in the midst of a royal commission of inquiry into claims of abuse and neglect of those cared for by the state.

Arrell, who worked at Tokanui as well as living at the farm, was one of those who shared their memories.

Today, Tokanui’s dead lie at the centre of a dairy farm run by Agresearch, a crown research institute. To find the graveyard, you trudge up the chewed-up mud of a track, past the gaze of a cluster of bobby calves. The graves have been fenced off, to stop stock wandering in. A wreath of purple flowers has blown into the next paddock, and lies half concealed by grass. At the field’s centre is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little crookedly in the wind.

Maurice Zinsli came across the graveyard while researching his family tree. His great-aunt, Maria, had been committed to Tokanui at age 23, while grieving the sudden death of her fiance. She remained there until her death almost 40 years later. Zinsli had looked up where she was buried, and discovered it was nearby – in a cemetery he hadn’t heard of before. “I said oh – that’s just down the bloody road from me, I’ll go down and have a look.”

He was appalled by what he found. “It was a farm paddock – that’s all it was, that’s all you could say. The cattle were in there, the sheep were in there … It was an absolute disgrace,” he says. He began a decade-long campaign for recognition and a proper memorial for the people buried there. On the hill there now stands a memorial wall, etched with the 467 names of those Zinsli and genealogist Anna Purgar have spent almost a decade tracking down.

Cows on a muddy track in front of the grassy hills of the paddock grave
‘To find the graveyard, you trudge up the chewed-up mud of a track.’ Photograph: Tess McClure/The Guardian

Purgar also has an extended family member buried there, and says she’s saddened that no one took responsibility after the institution closed.

“It’s quite sad really, if you see it, it’s quite emotional. You sort of stand there, and turn around and see all these people’s names. And you turn back again and think well, they’re in this paddock.”

Zinsli says: “I couldn’t see why all these people that were buried there never got any recognition. I mean, they were human beings for God’s sake.”

The forgotten graveyard strikes him as symbolic of a wider societal forgetting. “If you went into a mental home, no matter what you went in for, a stigma got attached – and then nobody wants to know about it.”

‘Tokanui ruined my life’

New Zealand is in the process of excavating the experiences and memories of those who lived through its institutions, in an effort to understand how the country allowed abuse or neglect to occur, and to ensure it is not repeated.

The royal commission, which will deliver its final report in June next year, was established in 2018 and has been taking evidence since 2019. Over the past month, it conducted hearings on abuse in state psychiatric and disability care facilities, adding to thousands of hours of testimony from ex-staff, patients and family members.

An ex-resident of Tokanui, Peter Keoghan, was sent to the hospital when he was five years old, and remained there for 20 years. Keoghan told the tribunal he experienced physical abuse from staff members and sexual abuse from other patients.

“Tokanui ruined my life and it has affected me every day. It was not a nice place. The memories made me feel angry,” he said. “When I got out, I said ‘I’m free I’m free! I’m free!’ No one would kick me in the stomach or grab me around the neck.”

One witness to the tribunal – identified as Mr EY – testified about the loss of his 12-year-old brother, Jimmy, who was sent to Tokanui after being diagnosed with “imbecility” and difficulty walking. The family visited Jimmy just once after his admission. In a little over a year, EY alleged he had transformed – he was severely overweight, heavily medicated, non-verbal and confined to a wheelchair. Attempting to lift him up, EY discovered he was bleeding from severe bed sores.

The shadow of a young girl or boy playing on a swingA95CDB The shadow of a young girl or boy playing on a swing

“He couldn’t acknowledge us. He couldn’t even say anything. He was sitting there in a state of obvious anguish, in physical and mental pain,” EY testified. Jimmy died shortly afterwards, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

“I believe Jimmy died unnecessarily. His mana [pride and dignity] needs to be restored but I feel that this cannot happen until his resting place is marked,” EY said. “My brother died in care. Jimmy didn’t have a voice to express his pain and suffering. So, I must carry his voice from beyond the grave to ensure justice.”

‘What was going on for that to be able to happen?’

Tokanui was built in 1912, when eugenics ideas were mainstream in New Zealand. A year earlier, the country had signed its “Mental Defectives Act”, allowing for the detention and segregation of people considered “mentally deficient”. The New Zealand Nurse’s journal celebrated the bill’s passing, saying it would help with “stemming the tide of race deterioration”.

The idea developed “that it would be better to corral people with so-called ‘mental defects’ and take them away from wider society,” says University of Newcastle Prof Catharine Coleborne, who studied the history of Tokanui and other institutions like it. “A sense of protecting people from wider society, but also protecting wider society from them.”

At the field’s centre is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little crookedly in the wind.
‘At the field’s centre is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little crookedly in the wind.’ Photograph: Tess McClure/The Guardian

“These kinds of institutions may become worlds unto their own,” says Coleborne – and their legacy is not black and white. “Institutions are complex places. They could be places where people found respite and asylum in the real sense of the word, and purpose. But they needed to have support from the outside world.”

She says that beyond the institutions themselves, there is a wider question for New Zealand, around how it chose to care for those with disability, mental health, and others who needed assistance.

“I would hate for institutions to receive all of the blame, because I think what was going on more broadly was a culture of silence around people who didn’t fit into a productive economy,” she says. “There’s a bigger question we have here … what was going on in wider society for that to be able to happen?”


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UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD” (Inclusion Ireland – The National Association for people with Intellectual Disability)


Inclusion Ireland

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Respect Our Rights Report

Respect our Rights Report was launched at Inclusion Ireland’s AGM on 15th December 2021. It is the result of the work of a project led by self advocates in response to the work the state is doing on UNCRPD. You can read the report here

We also have video’s on the 7 different topics used in consultations for the report.

You can also watch a video from advocate Robert Martin which was also used in the final consultation  Robert Martin Video

Below you will find videos about the report itself and the process for the project

Presentation of the report

Presentation of the project process

As part of this project, our self advocates took part in events at the United Nations

You will see links to their speeches below

  1. Paul on barriers to employment, 22nd of March
  2. Tomas on good practices related to employment, 24th of March
  3. Margaret on participation of people with disabilities during covid19, 14th of September

Well done to everyone involved in the project for all their great work.

You will also find more information on UNCRPD on this page if you keep scrolling down.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) says that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The UNCRPD requires change, from viewing people with disabilities as receivers of charity, medical treatment, and social protection to viewing people with disabilities as

  • people with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights,
  • people who are capable of making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent and
  • people who are capable of being active members of society.

The UNCRPD identifies 26 important rights that impact the lives of persons with disabilities. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and came into force in 2008.

Our mission is to champion the rights of people with an intellectual disability in Ireland through securing the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

What are the rights of persons with disabilities?

  • Equality and non-discrimination – The right to enjoy equal protection and benefit of the law (article 5)
  • Women with disabilities – The right of women with disabilities to full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms (article 6)
  • Children with disabilities – Children with disabilities enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children (article 7)
  • Awareness-raising – A commitment by the state to raising awareness, to encourage respect for the rights and dignity of the person, to combat stereotypes and to promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities (article 8)
  • Accessibility – So that people with disabilities can live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life. Accessible – Buildings – Roads – Transport – Schools – Hospitals – Workplaces – Businesses – Services – Public spaces – Information – Communication systems -Technology (article 9)
  • Right to life – “Every human being has the inherent right to life, and we shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.” (article 10)
  • Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies – In times of risk, conflict, emergency or natural disaster, all necessary measures are taken to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities. (article 11)
  • Equal recognition before the law – A right to recognition as persons before the law, to enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others, to own property and to control their financial affairs, with safeguards to prevent abuse (article 12)
  • Access to justice – A right to effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others with appropriate accommodations in all legal proceedings and training for those working in the field of administration of justice (article 13)
  • Liberty and security of the person – The right to liberty and security on an equal basis with others – “The existence of a disability shall not justify a deprivation of liberty.” (article 14)
  • Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment – No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This is a right for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others. (article 15)
  • Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse – Persons with disabilities, both within and outside the home, shall be protected from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse. Protection includes providing information and education on how to avoid, recognize and report instances of exploitation, violence and abuse. All services to persons with disabilities are effectively monitored by independent authorities. (article 16)
  • Protecting the integrity of the person – A right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity on an equal basis with others (article 17)
  • Liberty of movement and nationality – The right to liberty of movement, to freedom to choose their residence and to a nationality, on an equal basis with others (article 18)
  • Living independently and being included in the community – The right to live in the community, be included and participate in the community, the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live, with support and responsive community services (article 19)
  • Personal mobility – Ensuring personal mobility with the greatest possible independence for persons with disabilities, in the manner and at the time of their choice and at affordable cost (article 20)
  • Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information – The right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to look for, receive and pass on information and ideas. (article 21)
  • Respect for privacy – The right to the protection of the law against arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or communication or to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation. (article 22)
  • Respect for home and the family – On an equal basis with others, the right to marry and found a family, decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and access to reproductive and family planning education and to retain their fertility
    Respect for home and family also includes the right to services and support to prevent concealment, abandonment, neglect, and segregation of children with disabilities. A child shall not be separated from parents on the basis of a disability of either the child or one or both of the parents. (article 23)
  • Education – The right of persons with disabilities to education without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity and the right to an inclusive education system at all levels, in the communities in which they live, and lifelong learning (article 24)
  • Health – We recognize that persons with disabilities have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability. We shall:
    Provide the same range, quality, and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as provided to other persons
    Provide those health services needed by persons with disabilities specifically because of their disabilities, including early identification and intervention and services designed to minimize and prevent further disabilities, all as close as possible to people’s own communities
    Provide care of the same quality to persons with disabilities as to others, including on the basis of free and informed consent.
    Prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in the provision of health insurance, and life insurance and prevent discriminatory denial of health care or health services or food and fluids on the basis of disability.(article 25)
  • Habilitation and rehabilitation – The right to attain and maintain maximum independence, full physical, mental, social and vocational ability, and full inclusion and participation in all aspects of life through comprehensive habilitation and rehabilitation services and programmes, particularly in the areas of health, employment, education and social services. (article 26)
  • Work and employment – Recognition of the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and a work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. We shall:
    Have effective access to general technical and vocational guidance programmes, placement services, vocational and continuing training.
    Ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided to persons with disabilities in the workplace
    Ensure that persons with disabilities are not held in slavery or in servitude, and are protected, on an equal basis with others, from forced or compulsory labour (article 27)
  • Adequate standard of living and social protection – the right to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions The right to social protection without discrimination on the basis of disability
    Equal access to clean water services, appropriate and affordable services, devices and other assistance for disability-related needs, social protection programmes and poverty reduction programmes, public housing programmes and retirement benefits and programmes
    For persons with disabilities and their families living in situations of poverty we must ensure access to assistance from the State with disability-related expenses, adequate training, counselling, financial assistance, and respite care. (article 28)
  • Participation in political and public life – A guarantee of political rights and the opportunity to enjoy on an equal basis with others. This includes the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected and the right to participate in non-governmental organizations and associations and political parties. (article 29)
  • Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport – The right of persons with disabilities to take part on an equal basis with others in cultural life including access to cultural materials (TV, theatre etc.), participation to the fullest extent possible in mainstream sporting activities at all levels and an opportunity to organize, develop and participate in disability-specific sporting and recreational activities. (article 30)
  • More Information
    Inclusion Ireland UNCRPD Leaflet

For the full UNCRPD and more information visit the UNCRPD webpage

UNCRPD Human Rights Project for Transition Year

To raise awareness of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities we have developed a poster display with activity sheets for students.

The project introduces the topic of the UNCRPD and encourages discussion and understanding. Students learn that human rights belong to everybody, that children and adults with disability should enjoy the same rights as everyone else and that we should never have to choose between human rights.

The completed work is signed off by the supervising teacher or group leader. A certificate of completion will be awarded to each student.

To take part or for more information about this project please contact Inclusion Ireland at info@Inclusionireland.ie

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Deep understanding because she has had lifelong Aphantasia and SDAM. You can’t rely on your mind’s eye. You can’t imagine go forward; it is a world of living in the now. Aphantasia named by Professor Adam Zeman in 2016. Traumatic Brain injury can bestow this on you and it is a trauma also because you know the alternative of being able to imagine, describe etc.

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Stroke or TBI: Aphasia can be part of the silence of the epidemic. Please share because it can take decades to understand about Brocas and Aphasia. “Psychology Today reported on the study being conducted in partnership between IBM Research and Pfizer. Researchers are using linguistics (the study of language) “as a marker for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.”



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Brain Research

New Research for Alzheimer’s Disease Uses a Common Aphasia Test

A test commonly used to diagnose aphasia is helping researchers detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. While their findings have no impact on aphasia caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury, the research could be of interest to people diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia (PPA). Alzheimer’s disease is not PPA, and in the past, we’ve outline the differences. But both are neurological diseases that include the deterioration of brain tissue.

How an Aphasia Test Played a Role

Psychology Today reported on the study being conducted in partnership between IBM Research and Pfizer. Researchers are using linguistics (the study of language) “as a marker for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.”

To train the machines to detect those language changes, the researchers used data collected from the Framingham Heart Study, which included the use of the Boston Aphasia Diagnostic Examination—”a widely used cognitive test used to assess aphasia, a disorder that impairs speech and communication abilities, and increasingly for dementia as well.”

Researchers culled out a group of 80 from the study, looking at 40 individuals who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease and 40 who did not, though all were cognitively normal during the data collection period. Differences in linguistic activity helped the researchers to train the machine to detect certain markers.

Amazing Results

The researchers found that “the machine learning model could predict Alzheimer’s disease with 70 percent accuracy when using linguistic variables.”

Moreover, “scientists have opened the door to the possibility of non-invasive, easy-to-administer diagnostic tests based on linguistics for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease in the future.”

At this stage, we don’t yet have information on whether this algorithm could also predict or diagnose PPA, or whether the research could be applied to other neurodegenerative disorders in a future study.

Related Posts

Aphasia Threads: Kitti, Regina, and CourtneyAffiliate Highlight: Neuro Speech ServicesAphasia Threads: Bruce, Lynda, and JohnThis For Those Who Had a Stroke…. A Poem by ArchanaWhat Is Wernicke’s Aphasia?


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Why Can’t You Remember the First Years of Your Life? What Scientists Know About ‘Infantile Amnesia’. Source: SingularityHub.

early memory infantile amnesia toddler smiling red background

Why Can’t You Remember the First Years of Your Life? What Scientists Know About ‘Infantile Amnesia’


 Vanessa LoBue


July 24, 2022

Whenever I teach about memory in my child development class at Rutgers University, I open by asking my students to recall their very first memories. Some students talk about their first day of pre-K; others talk about a time when they got hurt or upset; some cite the day their younger sibling was born.

Despite vast differences in the details, these memories do have a couple of things in common: They’re all autobiographical, or memories of significant experiences in a person’s life, and they typically didn’t happen before the age of two or three. In fact, most people can’t remember events from the first few years of their lives—a phenomenon researchers have dubbed infantile amnesia. But why can’t we remember the things that happened to us when we were infants? Does memory start to work only at a certain age?

Here’s what researchers know about babies and memory.

Infants Can Form Memories

Despite the fact that people can’t remember much before the age of 2 or 3, research suggests that infants can form memories—just not the kinds of memories you tell about yourself. Within the first few days of life, infants can recall their own mother’s face and distinguish it from the face of a stranger. A few months later, infants can demonstrate that they remember lots of familiar faces by smiling most at the ones they see most often.

In fact, there are lots of different kinds of memories besides those that are autobiographical. There are semantic memories, or memories of facts, like the names for different varieties of apples, or the capital of your home state. There are also procedural memories, or memories for how to perform an action, like opening your front door or driving a car.

Research from psychologist Carolyn Rovee-Collier’s lab in the 1980s and 1990s famously showed that infants can form some of these other kinds of memories from an early age. Of course, infants can’t exactly tell you what they remember. So the key to Rovee-Collier’s research was devising a task that was sensitive to babies’ rapidly changing bodies and abilities in order to assess their memories over a long period.

In the version for 2- to 6-month-old infants, researchers place an infant in a crib with a mobile hanging overhead. They measure how much the baby kicks to get an idea of their natural propensity to move their legs. Next, they tie a string from the baby’s leg to the end of the mobile, so that whenever the baby kicks, the mobile moves. As you might imagine, infants quickly learn that they’re in control—they like seeing the mobile move and so they kick more than before the string was attached to their leg, showing they’ve learned that kicking makes the mobile move.

The version for 6- to 18-month-old infants is similar. But instead of lying in a crib—which this age group just won’t do for very long—the infant sits on their parent’s lap with their hands on a lever that will eventually make a train move around a track. At first, the lever doesn’t work, and the experimenters measure how much a baby naturally presses down. Next, they turn the lever on. Now every time the infant presses on it, the train will move around its track. Infants again learn the game quickly and press on the lever significantly more when it makes the train move.

What does this have to do with memory? The cleverest part of this research is that after training infants on one of these tasks for a couple of days, Rovee-Collier later tested whether they remembered it. When infants came back into the lab, researchers simply showed them the mobile or train and measured if they still kicked and pressed the lever.

Using this method, Rovee-Collier and colleagues found that at six months, if infants are trained for one minute, they can remember an event a day later. The older infants were, the longer they remembered. She also found that you can get infants to remember events for longer by training them for longer periods of time, and by giving them reminders—for example, by showing them the mobile moving very briefly on its own.

Why Not Autobiographical Memories?

If infants can form memories in their first few months, why don’t people remember things from that earliest stage of life? It still isn’t clear whether people experience infantile amnesia because we can’t form autobiographical memories, or whether we just have no way to retrieve them. No one knows for sure what’s going on, but scientists have a few guesses.

One is that autobiographical memories require you to have some sense of self. You need to be able to think about your behavior with respect to how it relates to others. Researchers have tested this ability in the past using a mirror recognition task called the rouge test. It involves marking a baby’s nose with a spot of red lipstick or blush—or “rouge” as they said in the 1970s when the task was created.

Then researchers place the infant in front of a mirror. Infants younger than 18 months just smile at the cute baby in the reflection, not showing any evidence that they recognize themselves or the red mark on their face. Between 18 and 24 months, toddlers touch their own nose, even looking embarrassed, suggesting that they connect the red dot in the mirror with their own face—they have some sense of self.

Another possible explanation for infantile amnesia is that because infants don’t have language until later in the second year of life, they can’t form narratives about their own lives that they can later recall.

Finally, the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that’s largely responsible for memory, isn’t fully developed in the infancy period.

Scientists will continue to investigate how each of these factors might contribute to why you can’t remember much, if anything, about your life before the age of two.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: Humphrey Muleba / Unsplash 


Dr. LoBue is interested in the development of infants and young children in multiple domains, including emotional, cognitive, and perceptual. She received her B.S. at Carnegie Mellon University where she worked as an undergraduate research assistant in an infant cognition lab. From there, she went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Virginia, and the…

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Lifelong learning: 30+ years since TBI, interalia there was loss of smell; like the tinnitus and deafness in right ear so often downplayed by others, I am delighted to read this from Nature and to share it also.


  1. nature  
  2. outlook  
  3. article

Unpicking the link between smell and memories

Download PDF

  • 22 June 2022

Unpicking the link between smell and memories

The ability of aromas to bring back highly specific memories is becoming better understood, and could be used to boost and heal our brains.

Cartoon of a man smelling a flower and recalling being taught to ride a bike as a child
Image: Sam Falconer

Download PDF

A bite of a madeleine cake and a sip of tea is all it took to send Marcel Proust tumbling back into the childhood memory of Sunday mornings with his aunt. “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place,” the French novelist wrote in 1913.

This experience of a smell sparking a vivid memory will be familiar to many people. As Proust said, “the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us.” But how smells cause us to time travel in our minds and evoke emotion is not just of literary interest — it’s something that scientists are trying to decipher.

“Smell is very deeply ingrained in our emotional memory,” says Eric Vermetten, a clinical psychiatrist and trauma researcher at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. For him and many other researchers, the architecture of the brain itself is a clue to how tightly connected odours are to memories. When we hear a sound, the signal is conveyed from our ears to the brainstem, then up to a part of the brain called the thalamus, before finally reaching the auditory cortex. But when it comes to sensing smells, the connection to the brain is less circuitous. Smell-sensing neurons in the nose extend directly to the olfactory bulb of the brain, from which they can be passed on to other brain regions — including areas involved in memory.

The sense of smell is specific, which helps to explain how our smell memories can be so precise. Humans have more than 400 types of olfactory receptor. This affords us a tremendous amount of olfactory detail, and our nervous system needs to categorize all of that smell input. In 2013, one group of scientists suggested that just as there are five senses of taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami), there are ten basic dimensions of smell, such as fruity, nutty, woody and citrus1. However, the researchers gave participants in their study only 144 scents to profile — a tiny fraction of the full spectrum of smells, which might have limited the number of odour dimensions that the volunteers picked up.

Part of Nature Outlook: Smell

Knowing how our brains keep track of the smells we encounter has been a source of fascination for Sandeep Robert Datta, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. In the past two years, he and his colleagues have published two studies that show how short-term and long-term odour memories function in the brain.

In one experiment, published in the journal Cell last December, they tried to understand how short-term neural memories of scents affected the sense of smell in mice2. It was previously thought that all olfactory sensory neurons had the same genetic inner workings, even though they have different odour receptors. But when the team exposed mice to odours and then looked at the gene-activity signatures of their odour receptor cells two hours later, they noticed that different olfactory sensory neurons had different patterns of gene activity. The key discovery was that exposure to odours would trigger smell-sensing cells to boost the activity of genes that attenuated their responses to those same odours. In other words, when neurons pick up a scent, they become less sensitive to it in the short term — “filtering out the expected to emphasize the new,” as Datta puts it. Many people experience this as getting used to a smell in their environment and becoming temporarily unaware of it.

The second paper from Datta’s group, published in Nature, addresses how smell memories are coded in the brain over the long term3. The group exposed mice to different smells while recording their responses to those scents in the olfactory cortex — the region of the brain where smell signals are often sent from the olfactory bulb. Initially, scents that were chemically similar were transmitted to nearby places in the olfactory cortex. But the researchers worked out that, over the long term, exposing mice to two dissimilar smells simultaneously could change where in the cortex the smell signals would map to. The researchers could get two radically different scents to map to a similar region of the cortex, which could explain why our unique personal smell memories can be a concoction of various odours — the smells of sunscreen and the ocean evoking a holiday, say, or the scent of bug spray mixed with smoke bringing to mind summer campfires. This also suggests that experience can shape the association of smell memories. “What is crazy, is as your experience changes, the actual relationships that are encoded in your brain move around,” Datta says.

The study of how smells influence memory in humans has long been a niche area of research. However, around a century after Proust wrote about his madeleine-and-tea-induced flashback, olfaction is beginning to attract more interest from researchers, who are starting to understand the mechanics of odour memory. “It’s getting more popular,” says Kei Igarashi, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine.

By watching rodents navigate mazes guided by memories of odours, scientists are getting a sense of how neurons in the brain store this information. And there are also insights into the psychological elements of odour memories in humans. Smells can stir up cherished nostalgia, but there are also times when odours can cause anguish: researchers have shown that certain smells can trigger physiological stress in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thanks to a flurry of research in the past decade, we might be on the cusp of understanding the lasting power of smells — and how odour memories might be used to boost and heal our brains.

Early recollections

Even before babies can see well, they have a robust sense of smell. An infant’s ability to detect odours is so strong that newborns will prefer the scent of their mother’s breast and clothes over those of other people4. One idea for why this preference develops so early is that human amniotic fluid seems to contain individualized chemical signatures that prime the developing fetus to be attracted to their parent. The memory and attachment to these smells in early life is so powerful that scientists have even explored ways to harness it therapeutically. In one experiment involving babies who were about to be vaccinated against hepatitis B5, researchers exposed some babies to the smell of their mother’s milk, whereas others were exposed to the scent of another woman’s milk or to water. The infants who were exposed to the odour of their own mother’s milk were less likely to show signs of pain or an elevated heart rate when receiving the immunization.

Even as adults, the tight connection between smell and memory persists. One brain-scan study6 published in June last year found that when people are resting, the activity of their olfactory brain centres is in sync with that of another brain region called the hippocampus — which is deeply involved in memory. The activities of other sensory systems such as sight and touch were significantly less correlated with the hippocampus. The finding suggests that olfaction is more-continuously connected to certain memory processes in the brain than are those other senses.

Sandeep Robert Datta stands by a machine with tubes and bottles, which will send smells to mice.
Sandeep Robert Datta studies how odour memories function in the brain.Credit: Anna Olivella

Rodent studies are also giving us clues to the pull that smell memories can exert. Female mice, for example, will keep returning to the place where they smelt urine pheromones of potential mates for at least a couple of weeks7. And there’s even a suggestion that smell memories can be passed down through generations. Mice whose grandfathers were exposed to a scent similar to cherry blossom in conjunction with an electric shock are more anxious around that smell than are their control counterparts8, for example. The scientists who conducted the study suggested that this learnt fear might be passed to future generations through chemical markers on DNA sequences known as epigenetic modifications.

In addition to amassing data underscoring that smell and memory are linked in the brain, scientists have sought to understand what is happening at the neuronal level when odour memories form. Earlier this year, Cindy Poo, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Foundation in Lisbon, and her colleagues reported the results of an experiment in which rats were trained to follow four distinct smells — citrus, grass, banana or vinegar — to specific locations in a maze to receive a reward9. They found that as the rats learnt to remember certain smells and their association with specific locations, there was activity in the hippocampus and a lesser-known brain region just beneath it called the entorhinal cortex. But, surprisingly, they also found that some neurons in the piriform cortex — thought to be involved in odour recognition — were doing double-duty: the neurons responded to both specific smells and locations. “They’re telling you what odour you’re smelling and also telling you where you are,” Poo says. “It basically shows that our sense of smell is very intimately connected with our spatial memory at the level of individual neurons in the brain.”

Igarashi also conducted a rodent experiment, published in 2014, to gain insight into how smell and memory are coded together in the brain. He and his colleagues designed a challenge for rats in which the animals were trained to navigate a maze using scent. One odour would indicate that the animal would need to turn right to find food, whereas another odour indicated the animal had to turn left. After three weeks of training, the rodents were choosing the correct direction on the basis of the odours more than 85% of the time10. Igarashi and his colleagues looked at brain recordings from the animals and noticed that as the rats learnt to respond to the scent cues, cells in three brain regions — the entorhinal cortex, the lateral entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus — would emit electrical signals in sync.

Igarashi wanted to know more about what kind of molecular changes were aiding memory consolidation at the cellular level. So he and his colleagues designed a follow-up study11 in which they looked at the brain activity of mice that were trained to associate various smells with either sugar water or bitter water. The group trained the animals using a range of scents, including fruity odours and other non-food-related odours, such as pine.

When the mice were learning to associate odour with the sugar water, the cells in their entorhinal cortex were releasing dopamine. This proved to be a key molecule in consolidating the association. When the scientists blocked that dopamine release it impaired the animals’ learning — they would not remember to lick for the sweet reward following exposure to the associated scent.

The work could have implications for Alzheimer’s disease, because the entorhinal cortex is among the first brain regions to show deterioration in people with the condition, and olfactory dysfunction is thought to sometimes be an early sign of cognitive decline.

The odorous past

Often, smell memories are associated with positive recollections of the past, but smells can also trigger traumatic memories. Vermetten recalls that when he was living in Connecticut years ago, he provided psychiatric help for a Vietnam War veteran who was affected by the smells of the Asian-food restaurant that he lived above. The fragrance of the food brought the man back to his time in Vietnam. “He couldn’t sleep at night,” Vermetten says. “It bothered him, and he couldn’t put it aside.”

To better understand the role of smell in the surfacing of traumatic memories, Vermetten recruited 16 Vietnam War combat veterans, half of whom had PTSD and half of whom did not12. He and his team then exposed the veterans to three smells: the scent of diesel, which was tightly associated with traumatic experiences during the veterans’ time fighting in the war; the pleasant smell of vanilla; and the stinky odour of hydrogen sulfide, which, although unpleasant, had no specific association with war. The scientists measured the brain activity of the participants, using a method called positron emission tomography, and noticed that the smell of diesel caused a rise in blood flow to a brain region associated with fear, known as the amygdala, in the veterans with PTSD but had less effect in the others. The former group also rated the diesel smell as more distressing than did the latter group.

Vermetten has advocated for scientists to look at how certain smells might be able to calm or ‘reset’ people who are in treatment for trauma. For example, when someone is recounting a traumatic war memory, he says, they can be given coffee grounds to sniff, which can help to bring them back to the present moment.

An evolving research area

The study of smell and recollections of the past continue to offer insights. Coincidentally, it was in 1973, around the time that the war in which Vermetten’s veterans were fighting was ending, that the study of lasting smell memories intensified. Interest in the ties between olfaction and memory grew after a study published that year13 demonstrated that participants who sniffed certain odours in a laboratory were able to identify those same odours when they encountered them again three months later. Further research showed that people exposed to smells and pictures had a better recall of the odours than of the images several months later.

More from Nature Outlooks

More-recent studies have tried to harness the power of smell to help people recall information. In one 2019 study, volunteers were shown pictures — some of which were paired with unpleasant odours. When participants were tested on their recall 24 hours later, they were able to recall the images that were shown in tandem with the scent better than those shown without a smell14. And it’s not just stinky odours that boost memory: a study published the following year showed that smelling the scent of rose while learning, and at night before a test, boosted participants’ performance in exams15.

Working out why smells and memory evolved to be so intertwined is of interest to researchers. Poo wonders if there could have been an evolutionary advantage to leveraging scent memories. She speculates that our ancestors might have oriented themselves and their migration by discerning the wafting smells of places such as the desert or the coastline. “Theoretically, for our human ancestors who were navigating across different landscapes, this would be a kind of long-distance way to navigate, whereas visual and auditory [senses] are very local,” she says.

Although the reasons smell and memory have evolved to be connected are difficult to pin down, the flurry of data about how they interact on a neuronal level is heartening to scientists in the field. Thanks to faster and more-refined genetic sequencing approaches and brain-imagining technologies, studies are yielding new insights. “I’m a long-time olfaction researcher and I think we’re going through a little bit of a renaissance in terms of the tools that we have available to understand the sense of smell,” Datta says. With these tools in the hands of scientists, we might finally get more answers to why smells of the past linger in our brains long after the first whiff has wafted away.

Nature 606, S2-S4 (2022)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01626-x

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Ireland spend on mental illness is only 6% of budget when it is double as in the UK. Mental illness is lurking, stigma is prevalent, hidden, shameful yet we can learn from experience in other countries and we can leap frog surely. Mental illness needs to become, like cancer focus a number of years ago, the priority of a root and branch effort based on centre of excellence … it can be done. Mental illness includes so much from anxiety, to depression, addictions, compulsions. We need to tackle it head on. We have not taken account of the impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns and forced suppression which is yet to unfold. Let’s prepare … We can start here. Explore the social connection and mental illness through hip hop. University of Cambridge … 11 Hip Hop artists. Their message, starting 1970’s is so strong it is worth listening to now. Recommend song “Broski” to anyone who has lost a sibling, a family member, a friend to suicide.


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Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) is a syndrome in which healthy people report a failure to re-experience or recollect specific events from their past, although memory for factual information about themselves and the world is intact. For example, they know that they went on a trip to Norway, but they lack a richly detailed and vivid recollection of any events from that trip. (TBI … in my case neuropsychological test done 1994 as recommended by my psychiatrist Dr Jim Maguire)

Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) is a syndrome in which healthy people report a failure to re-experience or recollect specific events from their past, although memory for factual information about themselves and the world is intact. For example, they know that they went on a trip to Norway, but they lack a richly detailed and vivid recollection of any events from that trip.

Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM)

84 views Jul 20, 2022 Aphantasia Network 1.84K subscribers 12DislikeShareClip Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) is a syndrome in which healthy people report a failure to re-experience or recollect specific events from their past, although memory for factual information about themselves and the world is intact. For example, they know that they went on a trip to Norway, but they lack a richly detailed and vivid recollection of any events from that trip. In this talk, Dr. Brian Levine summarizes behavioral and brain imaging results addressing the following questions: (1) Is autobiographical recollection of past events expressed as a trait that varies across the population, with SDAM reflecting the extremes (as is the case in developmental disorders or personality)? (2) What is the relationship between autobiographical recollection and visual imagery? (3) How do people with SDAM function well in spite of their deficient autobiographical recollection? Recordings from the 2021 Extreme Imagination Confer

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Aphantasia (named by Professor Adam Zeman) Exeter University. “Phantasia” is the Greek word for Imagination hence a lack of an imagination (no mind’s eye). Some refer to this as “Defective Revisualisation”. I think this is significant in my case, and that post traumatic brain injury, I lost this. Could this have had the outcome of deep unrelenting depressions post TBI?

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Black Dog: Who fears its recurrence? Netflix docuseries about LSD – its discovery by Albert Hoffman, chemist, in 1943. The link to nature is profound. As a survivor of many pyschotic events which caused great fear in me, having watched this, what struck me was the controlled nature of the experiments giving people LSD under medical supervision. I am not promoting taking these drugs but for people with depression, mental illness, my experience of five decades with same, is knowledge is no load and be prepared to explore but under the guidance of your psychiatrist. Reading and internet are tools to help people overcome suffering.


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