The Nose Knows – The Proust Effect & The Sense Memory Connection
by Stacy Thomas | June 30, 2020, updated over 1 year ago
I love the smell of wood-burning. Whenever I’m driving past a farm and they’re burning brush I crank down the window and inhale until I’m practically hyperventilating. If I pass a house with smoke drifting out the chimney, I stop and sniff the air until I can catch a whiff.
It’s not just the smell that makes me act like a weirdo, it’s the feeling I get when I smell woodsmoke and the memories that come flooding back. Even forty years later, smelling the sweet smell of pure wood smoke drifting on the air brings me straight back to my childhood in the orchards of the Okanagan Valley, when farmers would burn their slash piles and the world was filled with the anticipation of Halloween, and afternoons would be spent walking through the dead grass of the orchards and the bare trees. When I smell that scent, I am back in that magical place, with the freedom to traipse through vineyards, and eating crisp sweet late summer apples.
A similar experience happens when I smell a perfume I bought in Mexico––I am back on that hot street in Valladolid. Sage brings me back to a road trip I took with a boy back in my twenties––we drove across B.C. through rolling sage fields in the heat of summer. The smell makes me feel the way I felt then—free and experiencing adulthood for the first time. I treasure those smells, and the experiences they remind me of. Through their scent, I travel back in time to a place I can never really revisit.
The Proust Effect
This ‘time travel in the mind’ is called the Proust Effect, because it was described and examined in great detail by French writer Marcel Proust in his seven-volume book In Search of Lost Time. The Proust Effect is also why so many people prefer to listen to music from their younger years. It’s not because they hate or don’t understand new music. It’s because hearing those songs makes them feel the way they felt during the best years of their lives. It keeps that spirit alive in them. As anyone who was a teen in the nineties how they feel about Pearl Jam’s Ten and you will understand what I’m talking about.
There have been many studies done around the neuroscience of memories and the senses. What differentiates the Proust Effect is that it takes into account the quality of the memories and their ability to spark creativity in the person experiencing them. Proust’s book defines the effect as an “Involuntary, sensory-induced, vivid and emotional reliving of events from the past”. If you recall the last time this happened to you, you might remember that the memory doesn’t snap into place, but rather sneaks up on you as a mood or a feeling that then gels into the memory. The memory is fully formed, and immersive. This is the Proust Effect.
The strongest link between the senses and memory occurs with smell. What we smell, unlike what we hear, taste and touch, has a direct pathway to the receptors in the brain where we also process emotion and memory. The hippocampus, where we store memory, is right next to our olfactory receivers.
Our sensory impressions of the moment we build a memory play a part. This is especially true of things that happened to us when we were children, particularly between the ages of 6 to 11. At these ages we experience things less through a verbal and intellectual filter, and more through our external senses, through the things we hear, see, touch and smell. As we age the nature of our memories are altered.
Our Fallible Memories
Try to hold a memory in your hand and it will slip through your fingers. The thing with memories is, they change as time goes by. As well as you may think you remember your favourite babysitter or a certain magical winter sleigh ride, or a dish your grandmother made, the fact is you’re probably not remembering it right. Maybe not even close.
Memory is pliable. Human memory has been widely studied and documented, and we’ve found that memories are fluid, and are pieced together and taken apart again as we grow and add new experiences to our personal historical record. Memories aren’t home videos of the mind, for most people.
As memories are built upon each other, and become mixed in with our emotions and our desires, our personal history becomes less a catalogue and more a story that we tell ourselves, and then the world.
If, for example, an embarrassing event is charged with negative emotions, that memory will become distorted when we reference and reframe it over time to reflect what we think was important about the incident, or what might be easier to remember––or harder, depending on our disposition. Others may remember the same incident completely differently.
Take your initial impressions of a moment, add time, and then factor in the forgetting that happens with the passing of time. Then, fill in the blanks with everything you’ve learned since then, and your emotions. This is what goes into any given memory, and why your feelings about a memory may change over time.
Old Memories, New Connections
Our memories are stored in neural structures called schemas, and within these schemas are memory traces, or engrams. Each engram is a memory, and every time we recall that memory, which has been dormant since last we thought of it, the memory trace is reactivated and rebuilt. The thing is, every time the neural trace is reactivated, it creates new neural pathways. When we reactivate these pathways we rewire the old memories into something new. Sometimes we edit an unpleasant memory into something more palatable. Sometimes we unconsciously alter a story when we’re trying to be impressive.
Think of all your memories, new and old, as a giant woven quilt that incorporates tiny connecting threads into all the various areas of your mind. Every time a new memory is formed, it needs to be sewn into the quilt somewhere, but that means the other parts need to be unsewn, moved a little, and sewn back in with the new piece fitting in perfectly. All the other patches on the quilt sewn into a new position on the quilt.
Sometimes some of the original connections are sewn back together in a way that changes how the quilt looks. Sometimes pieces of the quilt are removed completely to make room for the new ones. This is essentially what consolidation and reconsolidation of memories does, and you do it every time a memory is formed.
As one study puts it, this process is the “ever-evolving organization of the record of experience.”
Groups of people can collectively edit or misremember an event. In a fairly common phenomenon called the Mandela Effect, large groups of people (as in everyone, in some cases) can remember an event or detail of history or culture incorrectly, such as this quote from Casablanca which pretty much everyone in the world remembers wrong, and this, and this… and this.
Theorists have spread around all sorts of theories about the Mandela Effect, chiefly that we are all living on one of many planes of reality, and at some point in history a bunch of us jumped from a different plane to this one. I think we can all agree that this is a case of truth being stranger than fiction, or stranger––because what is stranger than entire populations convincing themselves of the same misremembered fact? What other pieces of history have we collectively gotten wrong, and how would we ever know?
This phenomenon isn’t surprising when you consider the ease with which people allow their memories to be altered by suggestion. When we are all working from an evolving mosaic of memories that we’ve constructed and reconstructed ourselves, countless times, and then you add the power of suggestion into the mix, it’s surprising that anyone can remember anything with any accuracy at all.
Just ask two people to recall the same incident from memory. It’s likely that the two of them will describe slightly—sometimes vastly—different events. Why? Because every person remembers things in a different way, according to how their brains process information (factually in the prefrontal cortex, for example, as opposed to spatially) and how they responded to it emotionally.
Plants for Memory Strengthening
As we age the connections in our brains begin to break down. As registered herbal therapist Tony Oakworth explains, inflammation can create debris in the brain which can accumulate over time, causing conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as neurofibrillary tangles block those delicate connections that allow us to remember.
The glymphatic system cleans the brain of inflammation and other debris during sleep. Oakworth describes it as being similar to little Pac Men moving through the brain. Macrophages are the mechanisms that get rid of harmful memory-impacting matter on the molecular level. It’s during periods of rest that this vital action happens.
“Cerebral spinal fluid flushes the brain at night, and actually washes away a lot of that debris[...] So if we don’t hit that deep sleep we’re not getting that washing of the brain. That’s why we’re foggy the next day. That same debris can build up, and if we’re not utilizing certain areas of the brain it can become occlusions that literally start to block those connections, and we start to develop things like dementia.”
Plants can contribute to slowing down this process. “Anything that brings blood to the head, we can think of as useful for that memory work,” says Oakworth.
“Things like lion’s mane mushroom have a neurological effect in regards to assisting non-neuronal connections and facilitating non-neuronal attachment and regrowth.”
Lion’s mane (hericium erinaceus) has a powerful antioxidant effect on the brain and has been shown in various studies to improve cognitive ability and memory functioning. In addition to aiding memory, lion’s mane has also traditionally been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for immune system and digestion health, it can also help treat ulcers.
Lion’s mane can help to improve neuroplasticity in the brain—strengthening those memory circuits. As cleaning and building occurs, the framework of our memories are structured and strengthened.
Water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri), an herb which has been used for memory in Ayurvedic medicine for generations, also has a strong documented effect of memory enhancement, and using our olfactory senses can help to enhance this work, Oakworth says. Rosemary is a powerful herb that can be used to induce olfactory memory stimulation. In his work as a teacher at Pacific Rim College on Vancouver Island, B.C., he sees students using rosemary to stimulate their recall during tests. The rosemary could almost be said to induce the Proust Effect. If one smells rosemary during study, Oakworth explains, smelling the herb again during a test will cause the information to return.
“It has a dual effect, by bringing the blood flow to the brain, you’re giving oxygen and you’re providing sustenance for the working of the actual organ, but then you’re also getting that olfactory connection.”
The more research that is done on memory and how it is stored and structured in our brains, the more clear it becomes that our memories are less an actual account of what has happened to us in our lives, and more a narrative that reflects our interpretations of us and our world.
As our stories evolve, we may lose some threads of the tapestry altogether, but with the use of plants, we can take steps to slow or even prevent memory loss. Thanks to our discovery of the Proust Effect we now know that “follow your nose” is some pretty solid advice.
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.