Initial research into 'Proust Phenomenon' reveals link between memories and smells

January 30, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
nose
Image: Wikipedia.

(Medical Xpress) -- Most everyone has had the occasion of breathing in an odor and suddenly finding themselves lost in the reverie of a memory from long ago; the smell of fresh baked bread perhaps bringing back mornings at Grandma’s house or a certain perfume that always brings back a certain time in high school. Such odor/memory links are known as the "Proust Phenomenon" in honor of Marcel Proust, the French writer who romanticized the memories evoked by the smell of a madeleine biscuit after soaking in tea, in his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu. Oddly enough, no one has until now, done much of any research into this phenomenon. Now researchers from Utrecht University in The Netherlands have found that, as they describe in their paper published in Cognition & Emotion, when some people are exposed to a memorable event, memories of it are more vivid when there is an associated odor.

To test the theory that memories brought to mind by odors are more vivid than are memories associated with other sensory triggers, the team of Marcel van den Hout, Monique Smeets and Marieke Toffolo subjected 70 female volunteers to a short video of unpleasant, yet memorable events, such as car crashes or news of genocide in Rwandan. While the volunteers were watching the video, cassis was sprayed into the room to provide a unique and colorful lights were displayed on a wall, all while soft music played in the background. The team then followed up with the volunteers a week later, exposing them in turn to the cassis odor, the lights and the music as they asked questions about the video they had seen a week earlier. The researchers found that when smelling the cassis odor or seeing the same colorful lights they’d noticed when watching the videos, the volunteers described their memories of the things they’d witnessed on the videos as much more vivid. They also found that exposure to the music however, was comparable to not having any of the stimuli offered at all as they answered the questions.

The team says that while this simple experiment appears to support a linkage between the vividness of memories and odors or lights, it’s not really a proof of the Proust Phenomenon; to do that would require a much more comprehensive test where volunteers were tested to the extent that researchers could learn of certain stimuli that could lead to the evocation of memories, than offering up those stimuli to test them against one another, rather than simply testing the vividness of memories about a particular event. Thus it’s more likely these findings will serve as jumping off point for further research.

Explore further: Popular songs can cue specific memories, psychology research shows

More information: Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories, Cognition & Emotion, Volume 26, Issue 1, 2012. DOI:10.1080/02699931.2011.555475

Abstract
According to the Proust phenomenon, olfactory memory triggers are more evocative than other-modality triggers resulting in more emotional and detailed memories. An experimental paradigm was used to investigate this in aversive memories, similar to those experienced by patients with posttraumatic stress disorder. Seventy healthy participants watched an aversive film, while simultaneously being exposed to olfactory, auditory and visual triggers, which were matched on intensity, valence, arousal and salience. During a second session one week later, participants were randomly exposed to one of the three triggers, and asked to think back about the film and to rate the resulting memory. Results revealed that odour-evoked memories of aversive events were more detailed, unpleasant and arousing than memories evoked by auditory, but not visual, triggers.

Related Stories

Study finds brain hub that links music, memory and emotion

February 24, 2009

(Physorg.com) -- We all know the feeling: a golden oldie comes blaring over the radio and suddenly we're transported back — to a memorable high-school dance, or to that perfect afternoon on the beach with friends. But what ...

Early scents really do get 'etched' in the brain

November 5, 2009

Common experience tells us that particular scents of childhood can leave quite an impression, for better or for worse. Now, researchers reporting the results of a brain imaging study online on November 5th in Current Biology ...

In learning, the brain forgets things on purpose

February 18, 2010

Scientists have known that newly acquired, short-term memories are often fleeting. But a new study in flies suggests that kind of forgetfulness doesn't just happen. Rather, an active process of erasing memories may in some ...

Virus takes memories from cellist but leaves music

November 15, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- At a recent meeting at the Society for Neuroscience in Washington DC, researchers revealed a case of herpesviral encephalitis that had destroyed areas of a 71-year-old cellist’s brain. The man, known ...

Study shows people can guess personality via body odor

December 5, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- An interesting study conducted by Polish researchers Agnieszka Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski and Andrzej Szmajke, of the University of Wroclaw, has found that people are able to guess a person’s type ...

Recommended for you

Sleep makes relearning faster and longer-lasting

August 22, 2016

Getting some sleep in between study sessions may make it easier to recall what you studied and relearn what you've forgotten, even 6 months later, according to new findings from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Psychosis associated with low levels of physical activity

August 25, 2016

A large international study of more than 200,000 people in nearly 50 countries has revealed that people with psychosis engage in low levels of physical activity, and men with psychosis are over two times more likely to miss ...

Have we misunderstood post-traumatic stress disorder?

August 22, 2016

In understanding war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, a person's cultural and professional context is just as important as how they cope with witnessing wartime events, which could change the way mental health experts ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.