Wednesday Writers Workshop: Employing the Proust Phenomenon

It happened to me when I was visiting an ailing friend, and I used the bathroom attached to his hospital room to wash my hands. Of course, I didn’t use his personal bar of soap, being mindful of germs and all, you know.  No, I conscientiously used a squirt of the sanitize-the-living-shit-out-of-your-hands soap that was in the wall-mounted container next to the sink.  This stuff…

And as soon as I dried my hands, I was knocked over by an overwhelming urge–to bury my nose in them.  The smell, the familiar smell provoked such a strong and positive response that it shocked me.  I knew it immediately was the same stuff that was in my room at Cedars Sinai Medical Center for the six or so weeks I spent there after my cerebral aneurysm ruptured.  When the nurses and aides came into my room, they stopped first to wash their hands in it.  When they gave me my daily in-bed bath, they used this same soap.

Clearly, there is a direct line in my emotional memory bank between that smell and my experience as a hospital patient at CSMC.  It’s known as the Proust phenomenon, the way that certain smells can instantaneously take us back to a specific time and a place in our life.  What fascinates me though is not simply the fact of my Proust phenomenon, but that the emotional tone it carried was so incredibly positive.

Shouldn’t the soap used by medical personnel on themselves and on me during a period in time when I was so incredibly ill evoke negative feelings?  Shouldn’t washing my hands with that stuff today bring back all the fear and pain and confusion I felt lying captive in the ICU?

But it didn’t.  It provoked only positive emotions.

I tried to parse what they might actually be, but I could get no further than “comforting”.  I see the nurses stopping at the sink on the way over to adjust a line or change the IV bag.  I can feel the warm sudsy washcloth on my legs and arms and that feeling of being clean, freshened.

So maybe I associate that smell with the medical personnel coming in to help me.  But that seems to me a paltry reason, nothing that would justify the huge urge I have to bury my nose in my hands, to wrap my arms around me and just breathe in the odor. Is it possible that the Proust Phenomenon can pick and choose which memories it will tap into?  Or is there something about that time and that smell that I’m not yet getting?

Have you experienced the Proust phenomemon in your life?  When?  What was the smell and where did it take you?  Give yourself a 15-20 minute time limit and just write it out.

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  • Maryl

    I know I’ve experienced this phenomenon many times but the one I remember more than the others is associating a Clairol hairspray, which I don’t use anymore, with vacationing with my family in Sorrento, Italy. I was in between a work assignment in Vienna and it was a particularly exciting and rewarding time of my life. And I think that had more to do with this rather odd smell sensation than the smell itself. The memory made me feel good but I can’t go back to hairspray!

  • Diane Beck

    One day I was cleaning out my kitchen cabinets and started organizing my spices. Many were in plastic bags and not all were sealed properly. I found myself in the midst of a swirl of different spices–cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, paprika, oregano, bay leaves…such an intoxicating mix and it transported me instantaneously back to the mid-70s when I lived temporarily in Denver during a year off from college, had food stamps and would shop at the local food co-op. Even though I was in a lousy relationship and far from home, and had no money, I was preparing healthy food and open to anything–thus my love of their bulk spice section.

  • Joanna Jenkins

    That’s fascinating. I’ve been in and at Cedars so many, many times in the past 20 years but I can’t recall that smell. The next time I’m there I’ll be sniffing to see if I can figure it out.
    This is so interesting. The only time a certain smell has transported me anywhere is, dare I say, food.

  • Kim Prince
  • Jayne

    I can’t recall such an experience, but I thought you wrote about yours beautifully.

    • Jane

      Thanks, Jayne, but I bet you have had the experience. You’re just not remembering it now. And I bet it had something to do with horses and barns….

  • Anonymous

    When I work with actors to generate material/text for performances, I will ask them to feedback to me via email connecting certain smells, colors and tastes with situations and emotions.

    • Jane

      That’s why I tagged this post Sense Memory. I’m a Theatre major too, remember.

  • Angie Hite

    I didn’t know there was a name for this either, but I’m thrilled to add this little tidbit to my writer’s arsenal. It works great as a title from a marketing perspective, too, because it drew me in to read your article. Thank you, Jane! I was aware, though, that smell, above all other sense-memories, triggers the highest emotional response.

    And yes, it IS interesting how the response that was triggered in you was one of such comfort. Such a gift, then, to reframe what would otherwise be thought of as a traumatic experience into a memory that holds positive emotion.

    • Jane

      I read an article a couple of weeks ago, Angie, that told exactly why smell has the highest emotional trigger response. I think it has something to do with where in the brain it actually is, close to the emotional receptors. But damned if I can remember or remember where I read it. Maybe I should have smelled the magazine (or was it a newspaper….or?)

  • KingMidget

    As always, I’m amazed that there’s a name for something. I’ve always just called it a memory smell. I can’t remember specific instances where it has occurred for me, but I’ve used it a couple of times in stories I’ve written. In one, a postal clerk takes some packages from a junkie who is so dirty and smelly, the smell stays in her and she’s convinced she’ll never shake it. Not exactly what you describe, but in my mind when I wrote it, it’s a smell that would come back to her as well at odd times, days, weeks, and months later.

    • Jane

      There are some other very fancy names for it as well, Mark, the kind that the science boys and girls like to sling around. Great use of it in your story: just those few sentences here evoke for me character and plot.

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