Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thaaaaaaaanks…for the Memories… 

Talk to anyone about things they remember very clearly, whether these be childhood escapades or teenage glories, and it won’t be long until they start telling you about the songs, smells and stories emblazoned on their memories. We have a deep, immutable relationship with certain sounds and scents, and it’s always good fun to see how animated and excitable people can get when relating to you what emotions and images these things have triggered. With this in mind, I tried to come up with something stimulating and fun to play around with in class.

Behold, the MEMREE BOXES™

Here’s the idea. You fill each little box with a smell. Not necessarily even a nice smell, but a smell, nevertheless. I picked these little Tupperware boxes up from the pound shop – ten for a quid! – took them home, covered the clear plastic base up with gaffer tape, and stuck a number on each lid. Then came the ceremonial filling, which involved me putting something whiffy in each one and leaving it to brew for a day or so, thus capturing a heady scent that might hopefully be reminiscent of some long-forgotten event or episode firmly entrenched in long-term memory, which each and every person in class would be given the opportunity summon up and describe.

In class, with so many to choose from – there are ten boxes here, which seems to be the maximum number; any more and it’s a bit of a sensory overload – the law of averages suggests that one or two of these scents, at the very least, should trigger a particular memory in the minds of our learners.

The task works something like this:

  • Get the class in the mood for a trip down memory lane in whichever way seems appropriate. It depends on level and class dynamic, obviously, but talking about how memory works, asking them if they think they have a good or bad memory, pictures of historic moments around the world…anything goes.
  • You then put the class into groups of three or four and give out the memory boxes (one box for each person) with instructions not to touch anything yet.
  • Then, demo what they need to do: close their eyes, open the lid slightly, put their nose next to the box and inhale deeply. They have ten to fifteen seconds per smell, so encourage them to get as much of an intake as possible.
  • A really important point next: make it clear to everyone that this is not, repeat NOT, a guessing game. They are not supposed to identify the scent by name. People’s inevitable reaction to closing their eyes and being given something to smell is to honk “APPLES!” or “COFFEE!” before grinning triumphantly and staring at you with gimlet eyes in expectation of a biscuit, or some other such prize. So make sure that the class knows: they have to try and describe the images, feelings and memories these smells conjure up.
  • Give out the MEMREE BOXES™ and wait for fireworks…

How you take it from here depends on the class. There is always a goodly amount of emerging language that comes up for you to work with, even if they need some encouragement from you to feel comfortable or to get in the mood. Liam came up with a nice idea when he tried the MEMREE BOXES™, which was for each learner to jot down three words or phrases after each scent, and then ask and answer questions of their partners about what they have written and why. A nice twist on a ‘getting to know you’ staple, and certainly linguistically productive whenever I’ve tried it since, particularly if the group is a bit reticent in embracing the task.

After the spoken feedback to each other, I usually ask them to focus on a particular memory, the most vivid one that came to mind, and write a narrative of the event, or a colourful description of the image. They can keep the MEMREE BOXES™ next to them as they write, sniffing away and using them as aids to recall and triggers for more detail. As you circulate, you can work with their output while they scribble away. Here are a few really nice initial responses to the task from learners in class, who told of:

“…scandalous gossip in the kitchen with my aunt”


“…a cold day in winter in New York”


“…when I opened the door of the greenhouse, I felt there was filled with the aroma of herb. It makes me relaxing and peaceful”


“…we were dipped in a crowded line moving around us in darkness [in a market in Marrakech]”


Walking around and monitoring, and upgrading their output there and then, is essentially a process of live editing, so to speak, with a bridge to long-term memory already open and connected to working memory; collocation, reformulation, focus on message, all of these things are ripe for the picking. So, from the above responses, this is how you might choose to help the language along:


“… the latest salacious gossip in the kitchen with my aunt”


“…a freezing cold winter’s day in New York”


“…when I opened the door of the greenhouse, the aroma of herbs filled the air. I felt relaxed and peaceful”


“…we were carried along by the crowd moving around us in darkness [in a market in Marrakech]


If you’re wondering, the smells that induced these lovely little snippets above were, in order:


Soy Sauce and Lemon

Cinnamon and cloves

Red Wine Vinegar (old and gone a bit stringent)


I’ve also used things like:

Blusher and perfume (together in one box; smells like grandmothers)

A bit of cloth soaked in Surgical Spirit (usually gets a response along the lines of dentists, or childhood broken bones)

Talc (babies, bathtimes and blankets)

Tobacco (usually provokes lovely responses if the learner doesn’t smoke; old newspapers, a beach hut in Thailand are two examples)

Burnt wood (universally familiar; very open to interpretation)

And all sorts of other weird and wonderful smells and combinations.


For this to work successfully in class, it requires a bit of imagination, and certainly a willingness to be open and to share some personal memories with others. And, as with every activity or task, some learners just don’t get it; some simply cannot get past the temptation to Name That Smell.

I must admit, my initial expectation was that the class would scream as their minds were blown by the full range of vivid, intense memories that this task brought suddenly back to them, but I was being a bit optimistic. I think I just got a bit carried away with the idea of being Robin Williams in that film.

Honestly, though, just try it. It’s great fun, not just for you but (99% of the time) for your class as well, and it really is linguistically productive. I’ve used the MEMREE BOXES™ with lower levels who all get on with one another, with higher levels who don’t seem to like each other particularly, and anything in between, and there is always something interesting that emerges. It engages the various parts of working memory, as people remember images and places (through the Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad), tell anecdotes and remember emotions and events (with the help of the Episodic Buffer) and take on new language (as the Phonological loop plays around with new lexis, personalised and contextualised).

One last thing. As you can see from the ™ symbols littering this blog, I’ve trademarked my MEMREE BOXES™. So, if you do try this out in class I’m going to want a fiver each time.


Have you also seen:

Cornelia and The Shell: Memory, Language and those Unforgettable Romans

Milk Danger Rabbit

Silly Grammar

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