Memory & Cognition

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 511–518 | Cite as

Proust nose best: Odors are better cues of autobiographical memory

  • Simon Chu
  • John J. DownesEmail author


The Proust phenomenon is an enduring piece of folk wisdom that asserts that odors are particularly powerful autobiographical memory cues. We provide a more formal exposition of this phenomenon and test it in two experiments, using a novel double-cuing methodology designed to negate less interesting explanations. In both studies, recall of an autobiographical event was initially cued by a verbal label (an odor name) for a fixed period, following which a second, extended recall attempt was cued by the same verbal label, the relevant odor, an irrelevant odor, or a visual cue. The focus of Experiment 1 was participants' ratings of the emotionalquality of their autobiographical memories. In Experiment 2, content analysis was employed to determine thequantity of information in participants' recollections. Results revealed that odor-cued autobiographical memories were reliably different in terms of qualitative ratings and reliably superior in the amount of detail yielded. Moreover, visual cues and incongruent olfactory cues appeared to have a detrimental effect on the amount of detail recalled. These results support


Autobiographical Memory Verbal Label Label Condition Event Detail Chemical Sens 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Aggleton, J. P., &Brown, M. W. (1999). Episodic memory, amnesia, and the hippocampal-anterior thalamic axis.Behavioral & Brain Sciences,22, 425–489.Google Scholar
  2. Baddeley, A. D. (1982). Domains of recollection.Psychological Review,89, 708–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Banaji, M. R., &Crowder, R. G. (1989). The bankruptcy of everyday memory.American Psychologist,44, 1185–1193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baron, R. A., &Bronfen, M. I. (1994). A whiff of reality: Empirical evidence concerning the effects of fragrances on work-related behavior.Journal of Applied Social Psychology,24, 1179–1203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chu, S., &Downes, J. J. (2000). Long live Proust: The odour-cued autobiographical memory bump.Cognition,75, B41-B50.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Clark, D. M., &Teasdale, J. D. (1982). Diurnal variations in clinical depression and accessibility of memories of positive and negative experiences.Journal of Abnormal Psychology,91, 87–95.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Conway, M. A. (1991). In defense of everyday memory.American Psychologist,46, 19–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Conway, M. A. (1992). A structural model of autobiographical memory. In M. A. Conway, D. C. Rubin, H. Spinnler, & W. A. Wagenaar (Eds.),Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 167–193). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  9. Conway, M. A. (1996). Autobiographical knowledge and autobiographical memories. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.),Remembering our past: Studies in autobiographical memory (pp. 67–93). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Conway, M. A., &Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2000). The construction of autobiographical memories in the self-memory system.Psychological Review,107, 261–288.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Dodd, J., &Castellucci, V. F. (1991). Smell and taste: The chemical senses. In E. R. Kandel, J. H. Schwartz, & T. M. Jessell (Eds.),Principles of neural science (3rd ed., pp.512–529). Norwalk: Appleton Lange.Google Scholar
  12. Ehrlichman, H., &Bastone, L. (1992). Olfaction and emotion. In M. J. Serby & K. L. Chobor (Eds.),Science of olfaction (pp. 410–438). New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  13. Ehrlichman, H., &Halpern, J. N. (1988). Affect and memory: Effects of pleasant and unpleasant odor on retrieval of happy and unhappy memories.Journal of Personality & Social Psychology,55, 769–779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Engen, T., &Ross, B. M. (1973). Long-term memory of odors with and without verbal descriptors.Journal of Experimental Psychology,100, 221–227.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Hamman, S. B., Ely, T. D., Grafton, S. T., &Kilts, C. D. (1999). Amygdala activity related to enhanced memory for pleasant and aversive stimuli.Nature Neuroscience,2, 289–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Herz, R. S. (1996). A comparison of olfactory, visual and tactile cues for emotional and non-emotional associated memories.Chemical Senses,21, 614–615.Google Scholar
  17. Herz, R. S., &Cupchik, G. C. (1992). An experimental characterization of odor-evoked memories in humans.Chemical Senses,17, 519–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Herz, R. S., &Cupchik, G. C. (1995). The emotional distinctiveness of odor-evoked memories.Chemical Senses,20, 517–528.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Herz, R. S., &Engen, T. (1996). Odor memory: Review and analysis.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,3, 300–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Holsti, O. R. (1969).Content analysis for the social sciences and humanities. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  21. Krippendorff, K. (1980).Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  22. Lehrner, J. P., Walla, P., Laska, M., &Deecke, L. (1999). Different forms of human odor memory: A developmental study.Neuroscience Letters,272, 17–20.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Levine, L. J. (1997). Reconstructing memory for emotions.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,126, 165–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lorig, T. S., &Schwartz, G. E. (1988). Brain and odor: I. Alteration of human EEG by odor administration.Psychobiology,16, 281–284.Google Scholar
  25. McGaugh, J. L., Roozendaal, B., &Cahill, L. (2000). Modulation of memory storage by stress hormones and the amygdaloid complex. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.),The new cognitive neurosciences (2nd ed., pp. 1081–1098). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  26. Morton, J. (1991). The bankruptcy of everyday thinking.American Psychologist,46, 32–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Neisser, U. (1991). A case of misplaced nostalgia.American Psychologist,46, 34–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Nieuwenhuys, R., Voogd, J., &van Huijen, C. (1988).The human central nervous system: A synopsis and atlas. New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  29. Proust, M. (1960).Swann's way. (C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Trans.). London: Chatto & Windus. (Original work published 1922)Google Scholar
  30. Roberts, A., &Williams, J. M. G. (1992). Effects of olfactory stimulation on fluency, vividness of imagery and associated mood.British Journal of Medical Psychology,65, 197–199.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Rubin, D. C., Groth, E., &Goldsmith, D. J. (1984). Olfactory cuing of autobiographical memory.American Journal of Psychology,97, 493–507.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Rubin, D. C., &Schulkind, M. D. (1997). The distribution of autobiographical memories across the lifespan.Memory & Cognition,25, 859–866.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Schab, F. R. (1991). Odor memory: Taking stock.Psychological Bulletin,109, 242–251.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Siegel, S., &Castellan, N. J. (1988).Nonparametric statistics for the behavioral sciences. (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  35. Tulving, E., &Bower, G. H. (1974). The logic of memory representations. In G. H. Bower (Ed.),The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 265–301). London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  36. White, T. L. (1998). Olfactory memory: The long and the short of it.Chemical Senses,23, 433–441.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of LiverpoolLiverpoolEngland

Personalised recommendations