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 had not 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”.