How the smell of food can allow you to “travel back in time”


  • The smell and taste of food related to a significant event in the past could help recall memories better.
  • Using 3D printing, the researchers made custom replicas of the smell and taste of the food associated with the memories of each study participant.
  • This technology could be interesting to study in the context of the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

We know the phenomenon of “Proust’s cupcake”, described by the narrator of the first volume ofIn search of lost time by Marcel Proust. A flavor, that of a cupcake from the novel, that suddenly reminds us of a scene from our past, as if we were traveling back in time.

But taste is not the only sense capable of taking us through the years in an instant. The sense of smell would also have this power. Think, for example, of the smell of plasticine or glue cans that can transport you directly to the classrooms of your childhood, or of a dish that marked you especially in the past.

The power of taste and smell on memory studied by researchers

Researchers at Lancaster University in the UK wanted to know, through their new study, if the smell and taste of food could bring us back to old buried memories. His results were published in the journal Human-computer interaction.

Working with 12 older adults, they collected 72 memories, half food-related and half non-food related. Among these tempting memories, some participants cited, for example, that of grilled mackerel served on the occasion of the golden anniversary or strawberries eaten in the hospital after childbirth.

The researchers worked with the participants to create personalized replicas of the foods associated with each person’s memories. These replicas, made by 3D printing, were shaped like small balls of edible gel and perfectly copied the smell and taste of the original food. Therefore, they were easier to swallow and had more intense flavors, without the need for special ingredients and preparation.

Olfactory memory: “Suddenly, I was back on the spot”

After exposure to these replicas, the participants were able to recount their memory much better, more accurately about the details of the scene and the emotions they had felt at the time. Professor Corina Sas, who conducted the study, said in a release that “The smell and flavors printed in 3D caused the recovery of memory, causing positive emotional experiences, with rich and intense sensations, which the participants deeply enjoyed”.

In the study report, the reports of the memories were indeed significantly enriched in detail compared to the first recall before the experience. One participant even claims, regarding a roast beef recall recalled by the researchers’ replication, that he “was thrown back 25 years in one jump”. “I could sit at the table in the room… Suddenly, I was back on the spot”, he adds. The latter is amazed at the effectiveness of the phenomenon: “It just triggers a few more sensations. And yet, when you try it, you see yourself there again.”

Alzheimer’s disease: reconstructing memories through smell and taste?

This technology could be important in the treatment of dementia. One woman, whose mother participated in the experiment when she had Alzheimer’s disease, said that “As soon as she smelled and tasted food, she was like, ‘Oh, this is like old-time food. It takes me back in time.’ She lived a long time ago.”

Another participant also suggested creating a food-related scrapbook to allow people with dementia to reconstruct their memories of past events.

Dennis Alvarado

"Total social media fan. Travel maven. Evil coffee nerd. Extreme zombie specialist. Wannabe baconaholic. Organizer."

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