The Proust Phenomenon

On 15th November, a panel of scholars, psychologists, professors (and one artisanal perfumier) gathered at the Institut Francais in London to discuss the Proust phenomenon – the combination of voluntary and involuntary memory that the famous author uses to recall the smell and taste of madeleines, in À la recherche du temps perdu. An audience of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed volunteers were also gathered, to experiment with their own recollections of smells and memory. Here’s what happened.

The event was the first official one of the Memory Network, a multi-disciplinary research network headed by Dr Sebastian Groes, of the University of Roehampton.  The panel comprised Dr Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, of Oxford University; Professor Barry Smith, School of Advanced Study, University of London; Dr John Downes, University of Liverpool; and Sarah McCartney, perfumier and founder of 4160 Tuesdays.

Shepherd-Barr began by introducing the madeleine passage in Proust’s Recherche; described as “a master of modern memory”, for Proust, “the trigger is as much smell as it is taste”. The other two conditions for his voluntary/involuntary memory are that “the narrator be in a dejected state” and that “the memory that’s recollected must be a forgotten one”.

Downes then talked us through the details of memory recall, from his neuropsychological experience. People can date autobiographical memories most accurately between the ages of 15 and 25; with odour, the peak is between 5 and 10 years of age.

We then underwent a series of simple experiments, beginning by eating a jelly bean with noses closed and observing how much of its ‘taste’ is actually made up of smell. Smith explained that with foods largely made up of smell, the pleasure of expectation is sometimes out of proportion to the pleasure of reward. With strong French cheeses, for example, there is a mismatch: a bad smell and a good taste. Equally so with coffee, but the other way around: a good smell and an often disappointing taste.

Vanilla smells dusty, smoky, of liquorice, we agreed. It can’t smell sweet, as sweet is a taste not a smell. Interestingly, Asian cultures tend to smell salt in vanilla, as it’s more often used in salty dishes in Asian cuisine, while in the UK it’s always a sweet flavouring.

We then smelled seven unidentified tins, noting our descriptors of each one and rating them from scales of 1 to 7 on ‘familiarity’ and whether we could recognise them. After hearing what each one was, we then went back and resmelt, judging whether they now smelt more familiar, more evocative or more recognisable. They always did.

A complex smell test came next. We recalled a personal memory triggered by the word Sea, then tried to recall it again with an image of the sea, the smell of the sea (oysters and seaweed), and finally Condiment Junkie’s soundtrack of the sea – served at the Fat Duck with seafoods to create an all-round olfactory experience.

Barry Smith: “Memories are not direct [recollections] of the past, they are present experiences [of the past]. We don’t remember until we have language – around the age of two.”

The Proust Phenomenon

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