Smell and memory, taste and Proust’s madeleine

Smell is a powerful sense, capable of transporting us to a world of memories and even to places we have never set foot in before. No other sense can evoke images and sensations as immediate and emotionally moving as the sense of smell can (although taste is a close second). Thanks to a “direct connection” with the brain’s limbic system, which processes emotions, memories and physiological reactions, and the network of crossed connections between the amygdala, the olfactory bulb and the hippocampus, where the link to emotion and memory is formed, it puts enjoyment of these pleasures within everyone’s reach. It is not a type of synesthesia… but it can provide sensations that are just as extraordinary.

There is an interesting article on this subject in the online magazine Live Science.

This article by Prof. Emre Yakse in the EU Research and Innovation magazine Horizon provides a good explanation of some of the science and talks about new research.

A similar effect can sometimes occur with taste. An example is Marcel Proust’s famous madeleine cake, in the novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). As his character tastes a madeleine with tea he experiences a strong emotional reaction and then finds himself whisked back to a scene from his childhood:

“No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. (…)

I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. (…)

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.”

(Source: Marcel Proust, in a excerpt on this website.)

Fun fact: in earlier versions of the manuscript, there was no madeleine cake. It was a piece of toast with honey and then a biscuit, before the final sponge cake was decided on and ultimately used in the novel. There’s an interesting article on this discovery here.

Other names for this “sub-component of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort” are involuntary autobiographical memory (also involuntary memory, involuntary explicit memory, involuntary conscious memory and involuntary aware memory), madeleine moment, mind pops or precious fragments. This Wikipedia page gives a good explanation of this and other related phenomena.

Go to the page on olfactory-visual synesthesia (smell-colour/shape/location)

Go to the page on olfactory-auditory synesthesia (smell-sound)

Go to the page on olfactory-tactile synesthesia


This page last updated: 2 June 2022

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