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Smelling Your Memories? The Positive and Negative of the Proust Effect

Has a smell ever made you remember a specific event or time in your life?chocolate-chip-cookies-216 A lot of people tend to equate the smell of fresh baked cookies with their childhood. For me, the smell of a burning woodstove transports me to snowy days growing up in Vermont. Odors have the exceptional ability to instantaneously trigger vivid autobiographical memories—a phenomenon referred to as the Proust effect.

While other stimuli can also (obviously) make us recall past memories, they are usually not as detailed, sudden, or vivid as those related to smells. Certain smells can suddenly and involuntarily transport us to a specific time and place. What makes smells so special? Why wouldn’t looking at a picture of your childhood home have the same effect as smelling its scent?

Lombion, Bechetoille, Nezelof, and Millot (2012) proposed that this was because of how close our olfactory system is to our emotion and memory processing systems (amygdala and hippocampus, respectively).

 Whatever the reason, odors do tend to have a transporting property, an ability to unexpectedly bring you to a place in the past. Sometimes, this is pleasant, as the smell of cookies or burning woodstoves, but there are times when we can be reminded of unpleasant memories as well.

Traumatic memories are often extremely vivid in and of themselves, so it should be interesting how smells relate to this. Veterans (and their clinicians) have often noted the effects the smells of blood, diesel, and other war related odors have on them. Researchers Toffolo, Smeets, and Marcel (2012) were interested in further exploring the role of odors as triggers of aversive memories. Unlike previous studies, the present study was experimental, in that it controlled for content of memory (meaning they created an event and had participants recall it later).

In order to test whether smells were more conducive to vivid aversive memories, as compared to other senses, researchers had participants watch a twelve-minute showing aversive footage such as road traffic accidents, human surgeries, and part of a documentary about the Rwandan genocide, among other things. While participants were watching this, other stimuli were presented in the background. For the olfactory stimulus, Cassis was used (a fruity smell akin to blackcurrant) as it was shown to be a relatively neutral yet noticeable scent in other studies. For the visual stimulus, different colors of light were projected behind the computer monitor on which the participants were watching the film. Finally, background music was played during the film for the auditory stimulus. Participants were exposed simultaneously to all conditions.

Then, about a week later, participants were called back and randomly selected to one of three sensory conditions: auditory, olfactory, or visual. Each group was presented with their respective stimulus, and asked to reflect on the video. The researchers found that memories evoked by a smell were significantly less pleasant and were more detailed than those evoked by music, however there seemed to be no difference in olfactory and visual stimulus.

A cartoon of Marcel Proust

These findings, while not completely unexpected, confirm the Proust effect in relation to aversive memories. Smells can bring back more detailed, vivid, and specific traumatic memories than other types of modality cues. This is especially concerning for veterans returning from war, but can be helpful for their friends and families in helping not accidentally setting off triggers. For instance, buying a car that runs on diesel might not be the best choice for a partner who worked closely with tanks.

These types of memory are examples of implicit memory. Kvavilashvili and Mandler (2004) coined the term “mind pops” to describe involuntary semantic memories—meaning an unrelated memory that comes into your mind out of the blue. Implicit memory is preserved during amnesia, meaning that even for veterans with head trauma, these memories may persist and continue to be triggered.

The Proust effect can also be related to how memories are processed. Information is encoded differently depending on the setting. While many studies have looked at how being in a setting similar to that of the memory can help retrieval, less is known about which senses help retrieval. The Proust phenomenon shows how mind pops and transfer appropriate settings come together.

In summary, the Proust phenomenon can show itself in many forms, be it something pleasant like the smell of cookies to remind you of your childhood, or something sinister such as PTSD memories.


Kvavilashvili, L., & Mandler, G. (2004). Out of one’s mind: A study of involuntary semantic memories. Cognitive Psychology, 48(1), 47-94. doi:10.1016/S0010-0285(03)00115-4

Lombion, S., Bechetoille, B., Nezelof, S., & Millot, J. (2010). Odor perception in alexithymic patients. Psychiatry Research, 177(1-2), 135-138. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2009.01.018

Toffolo, M. J., Smeets, M. M., & van den Hout, M. A. (2012). Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories. Cognition And Emotion, 26(1), 83-92. doi:10.1080/02699931.2011.555475


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Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies

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  1. December 10th, 2015 at 22:58 | #1

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I especially liked your mention of the smell of a woodstove as I have the same wintery day association. It is amazing how things like smell can be so closely tied to our memories. In your post you describe the Proust effect as being able to bring someone back to a vivid memory. This made me think back to what we know about flashbulb memories. We know that people think that their flashbulb memories are really accurate, but in reality they are not. I was curious how accurate the memories that are brought up by a particular smell are. Obviously, if you just associate wintery days in general when you smell a fire, your memory isn’t very specific. But what if you have a smell association to one specific traumatic event? You gave the example of war veterans and the smell of diesel. If a vet was in a roadside bombing that heavily smelled of diesel, how accurate would the memory be that they recall when they smell diesel? In class we talked about how context can help us remember things. It seems like smell would play a heavy role in context. This makes me think that these memories might be more accurate than flashbulb memories which don’t necessarily have a trigger.

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