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Proust Phenomenon | Time Travel, Memory and Food

Health

Mosaic with pictures of different meals and dishes. | Image by nito, Shutterstock

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Does a forkful of peach cobbler send you straight back to Sundays at grandma’s? Do you recall your first date at the movies when you catch a whiff of buttered popcorn?

A recent British study focusing on food flavors and memory has gleaned better insight into how we can “time travel” through food.

Researchers from Lancaster University report that when exposed to food flavors from their youths and childhoods, a group of older adults aged 62–78 were able to recall moments from the past in richer, more enhanced detail.

The study’s authors utilized the so-called Proust phenomenon, or a feeling of traveling back in time, as the crux of their research into food memory.

More specifically, they were interested in whether 3D-printed flavor-based cues might be used to help people recall memories in old age.

To this effect, they collected 72 memories from the participants, half involving food and half not involving food. Each was recalled twice. These memories ranged from “barbecued mackerel at a golden wedding to eating strawberries in the hospital after giving birth.”

For those involving food, the researchers worked with the participants to create bespoke flavor-based cues for each one as a means of recreating food memory. The 3D-printed flavor-based cues were small, gel-like, edible balls, modeled after the original food. The flavors were more intense, without requiring any culinary preparation or the necessary ingredients.

“Our outcomes indicated that personalized 3D printed flavor-based cues have rich sensorial and emotional qualities supporting strong recollective retrieval, especially when they distinctively match the food in the original experience and prompt emotionally positive self-defining memories,” said Corina Sas, professor at Lancaster University and co-author of the study.

After consuming the flavor-based cues, the participants were able to provide far more vivid accounts of the same memories that they had been asked to describe earlier in “free recall” sessions.

For instance, when asked to recall a Green Thai curry dinner in Cambodia without any cues, one participant remembered going into the very basic kitchen area “preparing all sorts of types of green vegetables, which I have no idea what they were, sitting on the floor. And then we would help cook them, stir fry them, and then we would help dish them up…”

But after being exposed to the 3D printed flavor-based cue of the Green Thai curry, the participant was able to provide further details, describing “the chopping noises of cutting up the vegetables, me sitting on the floor cross-legged with my friend, chatting together. And then when we went out, put stuff on the tables, the rest of the group coming out and we sit on long tables outside, the front of the school, so it’s outside in the open air to eat.”

A remarkable result of the study was the link between the food-cued autobiographical memories and strong feelings of being “brought back in time” reported by the participants. As such, this research may hold particular relevance for combatting the loss of memory associated with dementia.

The researchers noted that other studies had already explored “contrasting odor cues with other modalities such as auditory, visual, or verbal ones” and had similarly found that odor cues were far better at prompting the vivid recall of emotional autobiographical memories.

In layman’s terms, the Proust phenomenon can be explained by the fact that many of our deepest, most self-defining memories and emotions are tied up in food and eating. Meals have significant cultural importance all around the world, and it logically follows that this importance would solidify itself in the form of memory and emotion.

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Pap
Pap
8 days ago

So they’re just figuring this out. No kidding, meals are a large part of life. I could have told them lima beans and cucumbers have always reminded me of my grandparents house, maybe because those 2 things were not something my Mother made at home. And my granddaddy died just before I turned 7 and grandmother had to move, so that’s a very young memory.

But to spend God knows how much money on this? Food has been used as a reward or for comfort for centuries. Tonsils removed…you can have some ice cream. smh