In his novel In Search of Lost Time, French writer Marcel Proust explored the power of smell in invoking memories. He tells a story of how he would have tea-soaked madeleine to trigger memories from his childhood. Proust called these memories involuntary memories, because it is not recalled on purpose, but automatically triggered by a sensory stimulus such as smell.
Our brain processes memory in a strange, abstract way. Because it doesn’t record memories like a photograph or video, memories become unreliable the older they are. We have very limited memories of our childhood, unless they are paired with specific emotions or memorable events.
Smell triggers involuntary memories because the part of the brain that senses smell, the olfactory bulb, lies right next to the hippocampus and amygdala. These sections of the brain handle memory and emotion respectively, so there is a theory that we form memories linked to different smells, especially if it is an emotional one. There is also some research to suggest a phenomenon called reminiscence bump, where we have a tendency to recall more triggered memories from adolescence and early adulthood. This may be because these are the years when we form our self-identity.
This may be why smells of certain dishes or baking may act as powerful mediums to recall treasured childhood memories, such as the love we received from our parents. Even as adults, we all have specific dishes that we crave to comfort us when we are feeling stressed or lonely. More often than not, these dishes will have a story behind them, whether you remember it consciously or not. When we smell the dish being prepared, we become drowned in nostalgia. The emotions of happiness, safety and love linked to these memories distract us from the pains of life for just long enough that we can have the strength to make it through another day.
Proust talked about a tea-soaked madeleine being his key to his memories. What food is the proverbial madeleine to you?
What food triggers your nostalgia?