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 honour 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 odor 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.