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Cognition and perception

Smell and memory – The Proust Phenomenon

An extract from a chapter by Sebastian Groes and Tom Mercer in ‘Smell, Memory, and Literature in the Black Country’, edited by Sebastian Groes and R.M. Francis (Palgrave Macmillan) £14.99.

27 April 2021

Smells—compared to other senses such as vision and hearing—have a privileged access to unlocking childhood memories.3 It started with a novel written by French novelist Marcel Proust, who was particularly interested in understanding the mechanics of his own being—and the role memory played within it. The project led to a decennia-long exploration of his life, in over one million words (1,267,069 words to be exact). A conventional novel of 250 pages is usually 75,000 words. À la recherche du temps perdu (translated as In Search of Lost Time, 1913–1927), contains a striking passage early on in the novel, when Proust's middle-aged narrator, Marcel, sips a tea-spoon of tilleul (lime-blossom tea) mixed with crumbs of a petite madeleine cake. The taste and smell trigger scenes from his childhood: it takes him back to the old houses of the village where he grew up, to the streets where he was sent on errands, the squares and gardens and, finally, to his aunt Léonie's bedroom where he'd drink madeleine soaked tilleul:

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me […] immediately the old grey house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stageset to attach itself to the little wing opening on to the garden that had been built for my parents behind it […] and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square, where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I went to do errands, the paths we took if the weather was fine. And as in the game in which the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which, the moment they are immersed in it, stretch and shape themselves, colour and differentiate, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognisable, so now all the flowers in our garden and M. Swann's park, the water-lilies on the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is assuming form and substance, emerged, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.4

Since the publication of the novel, psychologists and neuroscientists have tried to understand and replicate what has become known as the Proust Phenomenon.5 We now know that odours are better cues in triggering autobiographical memories than other stimuli. This is because of the direct connections olfaction has with parts of the limbic system involved in generating emotion and memory. The neural basis for olfaction is unique.6Smell is the only sense that bypasses the thalamic relay and has primary access to regions of the brain typically found to be active during emotional processing (the amygdala), long term memory formation (the hippocampus) and higher-order cognitive reasoning and evaluation (orbitofrontal cortex). It is this unusual neural makeup that has led many to speculate on the unique role olfaction plays in memory, emotion and higher-order cognition.

What Does the Proust Phenomenon Mean?

For Barry C. Smith, the immediate and involuntary recall ('cued recall') through an odour-invoked memory evokes interesting philosophical and scientific questions: 'Do odour memories really take us back to how things were, or do they just produce a conviction in us that this is how things were? After all, we can't go back and check whether our memories accurately match the remembered scene. Perhaps odour memories simply convey an intensely vivid sense of the past as if it was being re-experienced, rather in the way déjà vu makes us feel we have lived through this experience before'.7 This is an interesting philosophical remark because it suggests that Proust leads us to an epistemological conundrum in the sense that we simply cannot know what the exact status is of the experience that is retrieved. The brain is a black box and we cannot fully understand the electro-chemical processes that occur inside the skull.

Proust shows us that emotions and sensations come before memories. When he drinks his tea, it takes him a long time before the autobiographical, semantic memory (the story of a memory) emerges. In the novel, the memories of Combray, its streets and parks and, finally, his grandmother's house, take six pages to 'unfold': retrieving a memory triggered by smell is actually hard work, because smells are hard to name and describe. Olfaction is known as the silent sense.8 Although odours can trigger strong, emotional sensations that could become equally emotive memories, we have a hard time identifying smells—unless you belong to the Jahai, a community of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, who can name smells just as easy as colours.9Smell not only gives more emotional memories, but also different ones from verbal or visual information.10Scents are particularly good at evoking nostalgia—which will come as no surprise to readers of Proust, though the intricacies of the effect of olfaction on generating nostalgia are very detailed. And this nostalgia has many beneficial effects on people: 'Scent-evoked nostalgia predicted higher levels of positive affect, self-esteem, self-continuity, optimism, social connectedness and meaning in life'.11

The Proust Phenomenon shows that literature is capable of allowing different disciplines to speak to one another. Neuroscience can explain why smell is a strong trigger, and psychology can show which stimuli have particularly vivid and emotional effects, but literature has an equally important role to play in revealing how memory works. We might argue that without literature, emotions remain silenced, that literature is the key to giving voice to the silent sense.

The Proust Phenomenon's wider significance is not only to do with nostalgia for our personal, subjective past: by triggering strong, emotive childhood memories, we are being reconnected with our former selves, with the selves that we (may) have forgotten. This process is beneficial because it gives us a different perspective upon our lives—which afford us the possibility of perspective and contemplation. These moments confront us with our younger selves, perhaps different, more innocent, and thus asks questions about selfhood and causation—we come to wonder how we ended up where we are now—what life choices, motives and desires have brought us where we find ourselves today.

-       This extract is from the chapter 'Smell and Memory in the Black Country: The Snidge Scumpin' Experiments' by Sebastian Groes and Tom Mercer, in the book 'Smell, Memory, and Literature in the Black Country' (Palgrave Macmillan), edited by Sebastian Groes and R.M. Francis, £14.99.