It’s one of the most quoted (and arguably, least read) passages in literature. But that doesn’t stop Marcel Proust’s the “À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu” from providing a lesson for us all.
Proust’s seven long volumes were published between 1913 and 1927, and are a milestone of literature. But it’s the most famous passage that detains those of us in scent and sensory marketing.
Written in Proust’s rich prose, the narrator sips on tea with crumbs from a madeleine cake and childhood memories come flooding back:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”
What makes the Proustian effect so important?
So why has the Proustian effect (sometimes called a ‘Proustian moment’) become quite so important, and moreover, why do those in neurological marketing cite it so often?
It is because, in the most elegant fashion, Proust nails the phenomenon of “involuntary memory”. This is the way that a sensory experience can suddenly bring back a hidden recollection.
This is now seen as a key insight into the way the senses work – particularly in scent and olfaction. This is because smell is the most ‘buried’ of all the senses. It bypasses the thalamus, which relays the sensory information, and works directly on the hippocampus and amygdala. These parts of the brain deal with emotional memory.
Also, olfactory memories tend to come from earlier in life than other means. And as Proust found, they are deep and complex. Hard to identify and harder to put into words, but intensely powerful.
As Mark Reader of Premium Scenting puts it, “Of all the senses, scent inspires vivid memories and emotions, which is why it’s termed the ‘Proustian’ effect after the famous passage”. Whether or not you make it through Proust’s seven volumes, a familiar smell is an instantaneous remembrance of things past.