Recently, when I had a Coffy Bite, a long-lost childhood memory brushed my mind and filled me with the warmth of those carefree days. Many of us are aware of such tender moments when we are evoked by our senses (like the taste of our favourite dish, the scent of old books, even familiar sounds and melodies) to involuntarily reminisce about those forgotten moments, often accompanied by strong emotions. Scientists call this recollection of the past from external senses, without any conscious effort, as Proust effect, involuntary memory or madeleine moment.
Marcel Proust, the celebrated author of ‘In Search of Lost Time’, despite having no psychological background, was the first person to use the term involuntary memory. When Proust’s narrator tastes the madeleine cakes dipped in tea, he is taken aback by a childhood incident where he eats the tea-soaked madeleine with his aunt. Proust calls this enthralling phenomenon as the ‘essence of the past’ and which is the central theme of the novel.
According to the book ’Involuntary Memory‘ by J H Mace, the Proust effect can arise at least in three different contexts, primarily as precious fragments, including ones recollected during trivial everyday moments such as sniffing tea, tasting a cake, etc. The involuntary memories can occur as a byproduct of other memories as well, which often creates a chain of remembrance of past events. Mace terms these “involuntary memory chains,” stating that they are the product of spreading activation in the autobiographical memory system. Though least common, but unpleasant of all, involuntary memories can also arise from traumatic experiences. These occurrences make a person prone to trauma and stressor-related disorders.
Isn’t it surprising that those little and insignificant moments that pop up can take us to cloud nine? On the contrary, memories do have the absolute potential to tear you apart. After all, as renowned author Haruki Murakami said, ‘That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.’