Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Follow on Twitter
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
The madeleine episode in Swan’s Way (Proust, 1928) exemplifies the power of smells and tastes to bring back memories. This experience, sometimes dubbed the Proust phenomenon, has inspired dedicated research, as well as further fictional examples.
Psychologists Herz and Schooler designed an experiment to put Proust’s hypothesis to the test. They presented odors, words, and images to experimental participants and found that the memories evoked by odors were more emotional than memories evoked by either words or images of the same objects. Also, odor-evoked memories “tended to make participants feel more ‘brought back’ to the original event”.
Which brings me back to a fairly recent example of the Proust phenomenon, courtesy of Pixar. In the animated feature Ratatouille (2007), a young rat named Remy dreams of becoming a chef. Many adventures and misfortunes later, his future hinges on the review of France’s most acclaimed restaurant critic. Remy prepares a variation of Ratatouille which… you guessed right, brings the hardened critic all the way back to the home-cooked meals of his childhood. Proust would approve.