It was a balmy Sunday afternoon, the kind where you’ve finished the jobs that need doing, there’s sport on tv in the background and the outcome is an inevitable dozing off on the couch while the kids do who knows what. Perfect right?
Into this nirvana came the distant, but distinct sounds of the Mr Whippy van. I’m guessing Mr Whippy and its unmistakable melody is a thing in the rest of the world too, but in Australia it’s akin to the pied piper – an ice cream van serving soft serves cruising suburban streets and calling to anybody within earshot. Kids come running. Parents too…even if they’re being dragged.
Those tones echoed up the street, cut through my dazed state and immediately had me reminiscing about my childhood in the southern Townsville suburb of Wulguru. That same tinny Greensleeves tune some 40 years earlier was a well known calling card. The connection on this summer day was instant and even as I remembered Kelvin St, Wulguru, the song called me to my modern day footpath where I flagged down Mr Whippy and ordered a soft-serve (with embedded Kit Kat of course!). Bliss.
There’s something extraordinary about the human brain and it’s capacity to make those kinds of connections over a sound, a smell or a taste. Just a few bars blaring from the ice cream van’s over-worked speaker and I’m transported 40 years in time and 1500km in distance.
Many years ago I joined a bunch of friends hosting a ski trip to the Australian alps. We spent a few days skiing and loved it. Each day started with a bus ride from our nearby hotel to the ski resort and along the way we’d prepare for the day – donning gear, telling stories of what heroic stunts we had planned for the day, and applying sun screen and lip balm. To this day, the smell and taste of lip balm instantly transports me to that bus, the music we were playing, the stories we were telling and the friends we were making. I can be applying lip balm on a beach or a golf course in the middle of summer, but one whiff and I’m on a bus to the ski resort as a 28 year old listening to the Paul Colman Trio.
The much loved, and equally much abhorred Dagwood Dog is another. Just the sight of that tomato-sauce smothered abomination sends me to school fetes of the 1980s. And I can’t resist even though I know I’ll regret it from the first bite. Bliss?
Again, there’s something extraordinary about the human brain and its capacity to make those kinds of connections.
Therapists of course make the most of those connections. A music therapist might tap into long bound up memories in a dementia patient by finding the right songs that connect to a much loved past. Sometimes, of course, the connections aren’t joyful like the Mr Whippy van – sometimes they evoke painful or frightening memories that a therapist can help unpack and unlock. The human brain is powerful.
Advertisers know all this too. It’s no accident that nearly every ice cream van on the planet uses the same (or similar) tunes. Partly its tapping into those internalised connections. Partly its playing on the value of nostalgia as a marketing tool. And that’s a relatively benign, innocent example.
But for this story, on this day, there’s no greater purpose – just me marveling at the human brain. There are so many connections within the little grey mush inside my skull that lie dormant, just waiting for the right sound or taste or smell to awaken them. Sometimes (like the lip balm) I know it will come every time I encounter it, other times it will catch me entirely by surprise.
How about you…what sounds or tastes or smells send you into a reverie of past happy days?