Psychologist and novelist Charles Fernyhough calls it “one of the most famous passages in modern literature” – the scene when the narrator in Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu sips on tea thick with crumbs from a madeleine cake, and memories from his childhood come flooding back. It has become the archetypal depiction of what psychologists refer to as an “involuntary memory”.
This capacity for sensory experiences to trigger powerful memories, seemingly beyond our wilful control, has come to be known as a “Proustian moment” or a “Proustian memory”. Based on the madeleine episode and other scenes, Evelyne Ender wrote that Proust “anticipat[ed] later discoveries” in memory research. Jonah Lehrer, in Proust was a Neuroscientist, wrote that “We now know that Proust was right about memory.”
But how realistic was Proust’s depiction of involuntary memory really? A new paper by Emily Troscianko compares the portrayal of the madeleine episode against the latest findings from the cognitive neuroscience of memory.
Here’s what Troscianko says Proust got right. One reason smells and tastes can be so evocative is because they are paired with a particular situation, often repeatedly (and also often outside of awareness), and then not experienced again for many years. This fits with the fact the Proustian narrator tasted a tea-soaked cake that he used to enjoy regularly at his aunt’s in Combray as a child, but which he hadn’t tasted for a long time.
Another fact about memories that wash over us is that they tend to arrive when we’re tired or distracted. Again, this matches the madeleine episode, in which the narrator is “dispirited after a dreary day”.
Troscianko also credits the madeleine episode for its realistic portrayal of the unusual emotional power of smell-triggered memories. Unlike the other sensory modalities, Troscianko explains how olfaction bypasses the thalamus and heads straight for the hippocampus and amygdala – brain regions involved in emotional memory.
Consistent with Proust, there’s also research showing that odour-cued memories tend to originate from earlier in life than memories cued by other means, and that they tend to be emotionally charged but difficult to verbalise. This matches the narrator’s description of how tasting the madeleine triggered an “all-powerful joy” alongside a sustained difficulty tracing the source of the memory.
So what did Proust get wrong? First off, Proust’s narrator makes out that taste and smell are uniquely evocative. But Troscianko points out this contradicts research on involuntary memories showing that many more are triggered by verbal cues and by the other senses.
Another thing – the detail and accuracy in the recalled memories in Proust go far beyond what is experienced in real life. In fact, research shows smell triggers emotional, vivid memories, but they’re not unusually detailed or specific.
So, all in all, is the madeleine episode an accurate portrayal of an involuntary memory? Here’s where things get more complicated. According to Troscianko, the madeleine episode isn’t actually an example of an involuntary memory at all. In psychology, involuntary memories are usually thought of as those instances when a cue brings a memory immediately to mind, without any need for conscious reflection or interpretation. By contrast, Proust’s narrator tries and tries again, ten times, to retrieve the memories responsible for the emotion stirred in him by the cake. It’s a process that takes “at least many seconds” Troscianko estimates, “and probably many minutes”.
In an interview in 1913 Proust cited the madeleine episode as an example of an involuntary memory and he said the whole book was about the distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory. Troscianko doubts the usefulness of the voluntary/involuntary memory distinction and, more important for our discussion, she concludes that Proust mislabeled the madeleine episode. “Literature’s most famous example of involuntary memory turns out not to be involuntary after all,” she says. Writing in Pieces of Light, The New Science of Memory, Fernyhough agrees: “… Proust’s moment is not a ‘Proustian moment’.”
Proust – a literary genius for certain, but maybe not a neuroscientist after all.
Troscianko, E. (2013). Cognitive realism and memory in Proust’s madeleine episode. Memory Studies DOI: 10.1177/1750698012468000
Involuntary autobiographical memories (open-access article from The Psychologist).
Do smells really trigger particularly evocative memories?