Olfactory settings for scholars and scientists in search of lost time

'Two cultures' network: memory and madeleines are on the menu. Matthew Reisz reports

November 8, 2012

Neuroscientists, literary critics, philosophers and psychologists are joining forces next week for an experiment on the evocative power of smells, sounds and tastes inspired by the work of Marcel Proust.

The Proust Phenomenon will take place at London's Institut Français on 15 November and represents the first event organised by the Memory Network, a multidisciplinary group of academic researchers and writers such as A.S. Byatt and Will Self. It was launched with Arts and Humanities Research Council funding in September "to provoke and fuel original thinking about memory in the 21st century".

The network's principal investigator, Sebastian Groes, senior lecturer in modern English literature at the University of Roehampton, is a specialist in the treatment of consciousness, time and memory in recent fiction.

But although his own background is firmly rooted in the humanities, he became interested in scientific approaches to remembering when, as a Dutchman who moved to England at the age of 26, he came across research about "the effect of emigration on memory".

For most people, he discovered, the main "memory spike" occurs at the ages of 18 to 23, "when your brain absorbs many, many impulses".

"But if you move abroad and into a different language at certain stages of your life, your brain is triggered in such a way that there's a second memory spike," he added. "That has happened to me, a sort of doubling up of a very detailed sense of memory."

Dr Groes said he hoped the network would enable others working in the arts and humanities to gain similar stimulus from their scientific colleagues, while also "helping scientists to think about metaphors, the ambiguity and trickiness of language".

Themes up for analysis include the nature of "muscle memory" and "memory as a force that can contribute to shaping a more stable, sustainable world", provided we do not keep "forgetting" past economic crises and current environmental damage.

The opening event will explore Proust's celebrated account of how the smell and taste of a tea-soaked madeleine sponge cake involuntarily brought back intense memories of his childhood world.

This led him, said Dr Groes, to regard "involuntary memory as a very sacred idea, in the sense that it gives you an image of the essence of yourself".

Yet scientists have called into question whether memories can ever be truly involuntary.

In order to explore such themes, the audience at the Institut Francais will be subjected to a variety of tastes, sounds and smells. Their responses will then form the basis of what Dr Groes called "a series of relatively clinical tests of how different senses respond to various stimuli, where we measure things and gather data for later publication in a scientific paper".

Yet this dispassionate approach will also be directly challenged at the event, he said, when perfumer Sarah McCartney gives a presentation that "brings all the stories and emotions back into smells, things that aren't easy to quantify".

Explaining this dual approach, Dr Groes said: "We've got a great sense of openness to other disciplines, but we are also fighting for the humanities."


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