Proust nose best: odors are better cues of autobiographical memory

Mem Cognit. 2002 Jun;30(4):511-8. doi: 10.3758/bf03194952.


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 emotional quality of their autobiographical memories. In Experiment 2, content analysis was employed to determine the quantity 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 the proposal that odors are especially effective as reminders of past experience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autobiographies as Topic*
  • Cues*
  • Humans
  • Memory*
  • Nose / physiology*
  • Odorants*