January 29, 2012

‘Proust Phenomenon’ Analyzed In New Dutch Study

A team of researchers from a Dutch university have linked the olfactory sense with improved long-term memory -- a condition known as "the Proust phenomenon" in honor of the French author's novel "In Search of Lost Time."

According to Telegraph Science Correspondent Nick Collins, Utrecht University researchers Marieke B. J. Toffolo, Monique A. M. Smeets, and Marcel A. van den Hout recruited 70 female students and had them watch video footage "designed to provoke aversion," including traffic accidents, surgeries, and footage of the Rwandan genocide.

"While the film was played, the smell of cassis was pumped into the room, colored lights were directed onto the back wall and neutral music was played in the background," Collins said. "A week later, the participants were asked to recall their memories of the film while exposed to either the same smell, lights or sounds used in the initial screening."

Subjects who were presented with the cassis odor at that time tend to remember more details about the film they watched, and also reported that their memories were "more unpleasant and arousing" than those who were given the background music as a stimulus, Collins. Lights and smell were said to be equally effective.

"The present study demonstrated that aversive memories evoked by olfactory triggers were more detailed, arousing and unpleasant than memories evoked by auditory triggers," Toffolo, Smeets, and van den Hout wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion.

However, as they point out, the smells did not prove to be "more evocative or emotive than visual triggers."

"It could be argued that a necessary implication of the Proust phenomenon is that odors are more effective triggers of emotional memories than other-modality triggers," the Utrecht University team said. "Under such strong assumptions the results reported here do not confirm the Proust phenomenon. Nonetheless, our findings do extend previous research by demonstrating that odour is a stronger trigger of detailed and arousing memories than music."

Furthermore, the trio of researchers is quick to point out that the study cannot be applied to the world population as a whole, since no male subjects took part in the study.

"Taken together, the present study replicated and extended results of previous research by demonstrating that odor-evoked memories of aversive events are more detailed and emotional than memories evoked by auditory stimuli. However, whether odors are also more effective than visual triggers in evoking emotional memories has not been resolved," Toffolo, Smeets, and van den Hout concluded.


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