Smell and memory: A likely biological underpinning for the Proust phenomenon

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In Intro Psych, the sense of smell typically takes a distant backseat to vision and hearing. Part of that short shrift is due to the comparatively sparse research into our sense of smell and smell’s close relative, taste. With temporary loss of smell being one of the common symptoms of Covid-19, thousands of people have gained a new appreciation for this often-taken-for-granted sense. (See this blog post for more information--Covid-19 and a loss of smell: Discussion topic.)

During your coverage of the memory chapter, ask your students to consider common odors associated with food: freshly baked cookies or bread, curry, fish, kimchi, etc. Or the smell of the cologne or perfume worn by a loved one. Or the smell of cigarette smoke. Do any of these odors invoke strong memories?  In a small-group—synchronous or asynchronous—discussion, ask your students to share the odor and any associated memories they are comfortable sharing.

When you bring students back together as a class, ask the following question using your favorite polling tool:

How strong was your memory?

Very strong

Somewhat strong

Neither strong nor weak

Somewhat weak

Very weak

I didn’t have a memory

This tendency for odors or tastes to act as retrieval cues for strong autobiographical memories is known as the Proust phenomenon or Proust effect, named for Marcel Proust. In the first book of his 7-book tour-de-force, In Search of Lost Time (also sometimes titled, Remembrance of Things Past), Proust writes of how a madeleine—a buttery cookie—dipped in tea evoked a powerful childhood memory.

A recent fMRI study (Zhou et al., 2021) found a strong connection between our sense of smell and our hippocampus—a connection that is much stronger than that for touch, hearing, or vision. The researchers posit that while the pathways for touch, hearing, and vision were all rerouted—over the course of our evolution—to the cerebral cortex before heading back to the hippocampus, that did not happen for smell. Our sense of smell has maintained its direct connection to the hippocampus—the brain structure most associated with the creation of new memories.



Zhou, G., Olofsson, J. K., Koubeissi, M. Z., Menelaou, G., Rosenow, J., Schuele, S. U., Xu, P., Voss, J. L., Lane, G., & Zelano, C. (2021). Human hippocampal connectivity is stronger in olfaction than other sensory systems. Progress in Neurobiology, February.



About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.