Literature and Mind

The Proustian Phenomenon: Science Finds Memories are Retrieved Through the Senses

News | Christiane Popa | December 2006 / January 2007

Photo: USDA

"No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin … the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. … I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth… The taste was that of the little piece of Madeleine, which on Sunday mornings at Combray..., my Aunt Leonie used to give to me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea."

A taste or a specific odor can generate a flood of memories. This is not just a simple event but both a psychological and biological experience that has become known as the Proustian Phenomenon after the French writer Marcel Proust.

As the narrator of his novel In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes the experience of tasting a tea cake called a Madeleine that suddenly conjures up in a rush the scenes of his childhood.

By focusing intensely on this phenomenon Proust recorded how the human mind moves back and forth between present and past, the fact that things which someone thought forgotten might suddenly come back to life through a taste or an odor.

The Proustian Phenomenon has a great impact on people’s involuntary memory, influencing one’s mood and emotional thinking. It makes someone feel nostalgic about people or moments he thought were forgotten and narrates for the reader a portrait of the way the human mind works.

With In Search of Lost Time, Proust discovered the recollection of memory, a process scientists are still struggling to explain and test now, a half a century later. "Personal recollection is linked to self definition and to an enhanced sense of identity," write Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter, an expert in the study of the brain and memory.

Research has shown that people actually never forget their past, but the memories of some scenes or people are stored in one side of the brain that is not constantly active. However it can become active when the person senses familiar and particular scents.

"There are things we say we remember because we have never forgotten them, things we have always known, and there are things we remember because we did forget," wrote Proust. "These latter are the ones that have power over the soul." The Madeleine, the taste and the smell carry the infinite imprint of remembrance.

Proust’s effort to realize what was happening unfolds in a fluent psychological process starting with the emotion given by the taste of the Madeleine, followed by an effort to figure out by himself what had happened.

Ultimately, he arrived at the point where he distinguished involuntary memory with voluntary memory. Voluntary memory is governed by intelligence and the power to recognize events or people, while involuntary memory is more like a deja-vu, when one feels that she lived through or sensed something before in the past.

The narrator of In search of lost time eats the Madeleine at first like any other food. But as the taste is recognized, the cookie was no longer simply enjoyed, but "felt," bringing back the rush of childhood emotions. "Stimuli… called retrieval cues… allow people to recall things that were once forgotten and help them to recognize information stored in memory," write psychologists Philip G. Zimbardo and Richard J. Gerrig. "Retrieval cues can help people recall memories that had previously been inaccessible to conscious awareness,"

But in the present, these emotions are felt differently. "The contention seems to be that by getting a great distance away from something you may see it better than you could see something close at hand," Zimbardo and Gerrig wrote. Proust had a different feeling when he tasted the Madeleine as an adult than he did when he was a child. Over time, as one gathers more life experience, the past takes on more emotional meaning. Triggering his memory, the taste of the Madeleine made Proust happy, but also brought regret for the time and experience lost.

The Poustian Phenomenon brings to light the importance of the past over the present.

"We do not believe that life is beautiful because we do not recall it," Proust said, "but if we get a whiff of a long forgotten smell, we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we do not remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears."

Life as it is did not seem beautiful to Proust, because it had not gained the power of memory. However, Proustian memory is something private, personal and internal. It is something that belongs to the person itself and to no one else.

The era in which we live is built on technology, and people now try to preserve as much of their past using cameras, or DVDs.

Your entire past, however, remains printed in your own brain, and there it is the foundation of our individuality. Memory helps us shape and identify things that would otherwise mean nothing more than perceptual events. Proustian memory is a key to retrieving these hidden memories, of conducting searches in one’s own consciousness and past experiences, going from the sensibility with which one perceives a present emotion to the nostalgia of history, and ultimately to happiness.

At once, with the taste of the Madeleine, "the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me," Proust wrote, "its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation have had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal."

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