You have surely noticed a smell that was familiar to you several times and a very specific memory automatically came to your mind.
How is it possible? Thanks to the Proust cupcake effect, A phenomenon that we will delve into below so that you know its neurological explanation.
What is the Cupcake Proust effect?
The Proust cupcake effect is a brain association that we make automatically when we perceive a certain sensation through our senses, usually through the sense of smell, Which immediately evokes a past event, without any conscious process, that is to say involuntarily.
The amazing thing is that this memory can sit idle for years, even decades, buried deep in our neural networks, and we could perfectly well believe that we had completely forgotten about it until this unexpected automatic retrieval took place. produce.
The expression as such of “the cupcake effect of Proust” comes from the author of the same name, Marcel Proust, who published in 1913 his work On Swann’s Way. Specifically in the first of its volumes, titled In Search of Lost Time, which begins with the protagonist preparing to enjoy a freshly baked cupcake, and when he decides to bathe in the glass of hot tea and brings it to his mouth, the sensations perceived transport him directly to the memories of his earliest childhood.. In fact, the novel consists of more than 3000 pages in which are told the facts that the protagonist remembers as a result of this situation.
Therefore, the origin of this expression would be purely literary, but after more than 100 years of travel, it took root in both science and popular cultureSo, it’s relatively easy to find it in neurology studies or in marketing textbooks, in addition to many other fields. Other terms that we can find are the Proustian effect or the Proust phenomenon, but they all refer to the same phenomenon, without distinction.
Biological basis of this memory phenomenon
We already know what the Proust cupcake effect is. Now we are going to see what the causes are at the neurological level as we are experiencing something as incredible as the automatic unlocking of a forgotten memory, simply with the power of a smell, taste or other sensation. perceived.
It seems that the part of the brain responsible for this question would be the limbic system.Since in this region there is a meeting of various structures, with very different functions, but which apparently can come to converge and achieve the most surprising associations between emotions, memories and perceptions.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these areas of the brain in order to better understand how the Proust cupcake effect might be generated.
The first structure we find in the limbic system would be the thalamus, which on its own already constitutes an important set of functions, which will be vital in studying the phenomenon that concerns us. And this is the thalamus processes the information received by the senses, before being transmitted to the corresponding brain regions which have just integrated this data.
But, not only that, but it is also involved in processes related to memory and emotions, so it would already give us a lot of information about a key place in the brain where very different functions take place but which can of. one way or another see associated by shared neural networks.
Another key brain structure of the Proust cupcake effect is the hypothalamus, 1 well-known region of the brain where countless processes take place, but the ones that interest us in this case are those related to emotions. The hypothalamus is said to have control of emotional expression at the physiological level.
Also in the limbic system we will find the hippocampus, an area of the brain vital for making new memories, In addition to other functions which are just as important but which are not relevant to be able to explain the Proust cupcake effect.
Finally we find the amygdala, another of the brain regions which share the responsibility for this phenomenon, in this case because some of its functions are those intended for manage the emotionality of our reactions, also helping to generate memories imbued with a specific mood or emotion.
The power of smell
We should stop for a moment to take an in-depth look at the characteristics of smell, the most powerful in triggering the Proust cupcake effect on us. And we’ve already seen that smell, memory, and emotions share certain neural circuits in our brains.
It should be noted that humans are able to retain up to 10,000 different smells. In fact, we keep in our memory 35% of the information that comes to us by smell, and only 5% of what we pick up by sight, which is still a huge amount of data, because it is the way by. which we receive the most stimuli from our environment.
These characteristics make the sense of smell a powerful trigger for memories., As many of those who remain etched in our memory do associated with the context of the situation experienced at that moment, so that the recapture of a certain aroma will take us mentally on a journey to this very pleasant situation that marked the first time that we recorded the characteristics of a certain smell in our brain.
But be careful, because this mechanism does not include positive and negative stimuli, and since the smell, for example, of a certain infusion, can transport us to a pleasant place and make us relive a wonderful summer, it is also possible that the reverse happens. and rather reminds us of an event that we found unpleasant at the time it happened and that we had also completely forgotten, or at least that’s what we thought.
Special mention should also be made of the sense of taste, as it usually works in tandem with smell when it comes to food and drink.. And it is difficult to separate the sensations that one perceives through the nose and the mouth when enjoying a succulent stew, an intense coffee, etc.
In some types of psychological therapy like EMDR, based on the reprocessing of traumatic events, techniques can be used which, without exactly using the Proust cupcake effect, they use a strategy whose mechanism is very similar in its foundation to help patients.
In this case, what the therapist treating the trauma would do would be ask the subject to think of a scent that would be pleasing to him or her for some reason (or, if circumstances permit, to actually smell that stimulus), for example. a certain flavor or food).
This way, neural networks that had previously associated this stimulus with certain positive people, places or moments for the subject, would bring to the person’s mind this positive memoryThis would lower their physiological activation and facilitate the reprocessing of the traumatic event experienced and treated in consultation.
Smell and memory
But the relationship between smell and our ability to generate and retrieve memories goes way beyond what we’ve seen with the Proust cupcake effect. The relationship is so close that many neurological studies investigate the correlation between dementia and loss of smell..
In fact, for one of the more serious neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, one of the indicators taken to diagnose whether the person is at the onset of the disorder would be precisely odor capture problems, and that is that the loss of smell is associated with dementia, to share, as we have seen, brain structures which in this case would be damaged and would cause sequelae in both capacities.
More precisely, the point Critical of the brain that causes damage to this type of alteration would be the circuit that connects the hippocampus, a structure that we have already seen, with the anterior olfactory nucleus, which in turn is part of the olfactory bulb, located in the brain prior.
For all this one must be aware of the power of the sense of smell, not only for phenomena as curious as the Magdalene effect of Proust, but to be a precious indicator which, in its absence, can sound the alarms on a possible alteration. of memory. .
- Rodríguez-Gil, G. (2004). The powerful sense of smell. California Services for the Deafblind.
- Miranda, MI (2011). The taste of memories: formation of taste memory. Mexico. University repositories of the DGTIC.
- Bonadeo, MJ (2005). Odotype: Natural history of smell and its function in brand identity. Buenos Aires. Austral University.
- Aqrabawi, AJ, Kim, JC (2018). Hippocampal projections to the anterior olfactory nucleus differentially transmit spatiotemporal information during episodic odor memory. Communications on nature.