The Proust Phenomenon

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2007 was Pixar’s Ratatouille, the story of a young rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a Parisian chef. Many adventures and misfortunes later, Remy’s future hinges on the review of France’s most acclaimed, and hardened restaurant critic, Anton Ego, voiced by British stage and film actor Peter O’Toole. Remy ultimately prepares a variation of the classic dish ratatouille which reminds Ego of his mother's cooking, and brings him all the way back to the home-cooked meals of his childhood.

It was 20th-century writer Marcel Proust who coined the term “involuntary memory”, the curious phenomenon of a memory triggered by a taste, a smell, or even a sound. Proust was a French novelist and spiritual thinker and his most famous work, In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu) is known for being the longest novel ever written and deals with the relationship of themes including the genesis of erotic attachment and jealousy, the growth of wisdom, and the dawning of artistic consciousness. Swann’s Way is one of seven books that comprise In Search of Lost Time, and even though it’s been well over a hundred years since its publication, it was in Swann’s Way that Proust described the pleasure of eating madeleine soaked in linden tea. Just one taste of the sweet, buttery French cake mingled with lime-blossom tea was all it took for his childhood memories to come flooding back. A "Proustian moment" is a brief, vivid, sense memory, whether it’s a tea-soaked madeleine, your mother’s perfume, or even the faint whiff of tobacco on a leather jacket, it doesn’t matter, as long as that particular scent or taste conjures up a certain experience, time or a place.

It's no coincidence that Proust's memories were about space and time. Smell and taste are now understood to be common priming sources of involuntary memory. The exceptional ability that smells have to trigger memories is due to how close the olfactory processing system is to the memory hub in the brain. After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, which helps the brain process smells. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, and therefore can easily access the amygdala, which plays a role in our emotional memories. This close relationship between the olfactory and the amygdala is one of the reason odors cause a spark of nostalgia. While all of the senses are connected with memories, those triggered by smell feel particularly more nostalgic and emotional, as opposed to concrete and detailed.


  • Michael Katz

    And the house becomes a memory rich home for days as the smells of Latkes fill every room🥰🕎

  • Hannah Rogers

    This is a nice breakdown of what happens when certain smells do gain access to the amygdala. The lizard brain is really good for something valuable, not just the mostly anoying and outdated fright or flight response!

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