A steaming pot of stew served on a chilly winter’s evening as the snow fell. The first time you tried sushi and thought it was the most exquisite and exotic food. Biting into a slice of your Mom’s apple pie, fresh from the oven.
Food nostalgia means experiencing strong emotions in response to certain foods or their smells.
The phenomenon, known as the Proust Phenomenon, is caused by the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus working together with the olfactory bulb.
Smells can trigger strong memories and evoke more powerful emotional responses than even pictures or music.
Food nostalgia is a powerful emotion that transports you back to the past, connecting you with people and places you hold dear. Memories of a particular dish, food, or flavor can provoke strong feelings of comfort and security, often evoking fond early memories of happy times spent with friends and family.
Childhood classics from macaroni cheese, crispy fried fish, shepherd’s pie, or a simple bowl of oatmeal smothered in syrup can ignite a sense of warm familiarity that’s joyous and satisfying. But why do certain foods trigger such strong feelings of nostalgia? How can a taste, smell, or texture bring you back to a specific moment from the past? Continue reading to find out.
Why do you experience food nostalgia?
Psychologically speaking, just thinking about food or certain flavors can trigger memories and associated emotions connected to your past. It reminds you of the good ol’ days by reinforcing cultural and familial bonds.
If something makes you feel loved, safe, or happy, your brain stores it away in your memory and connects the food to those feelings. When you were extremely sick as a youngster and your mother made your favorite soup to help you feel better, the smell of that soup can evoke memories of feeling loved and cared for. You may crave a return to those moments and feelings and feel joy and comfort by returning to the same food, even if your mother is no longer the person making the food.
Certain smells can transport you back in time because of what’s known as the Proust phenomenon. The namesake of this phenomenon, Marcel Proust, vividly remembered his past after he dipped a Madeleine biscuit in tea. The smell and flavor triggered a flood of memories from his childhood and connected him to a moment from decades ago.
The Proust phenomenon
Often you actively recall facts from memory. When you go to a grocery store, you try to remember what you need to buy. You’ll use the same voluntary explicit memory during exams or when trying to remember someone’s name.
However, the Proust phenomenon is an involuntary explicit memory. It’s an unexpected, specific recollection of the past triggered by sensory stimulation such as a taste, smell, or texture. It can flood your mind with vivid memories of an experience without any conscious effort on your part. A sudden recollection of a past moment from childhood or adolescence is called a reminiscence bump, and it’s particularly prominent during the years when identity is formed.
These Proust memories are not always pleasant. Instead, they can remind you of a tough time, an unpleasant event, or something you’ve tried desperately to forget. Experts believe that many of the emotional responses of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) work similarly.
There is little scientific research on the Proust phenomenon, but one study showed that the hippocampus mediates related memory recall. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that stores memories, so it makes sense that it plays a role in the Proust phenomenon.
More recent research suggests that the amygdala is heavily involved in these involuntary memories. The amygdala lies deep in the brain and controls emotional responses and regulation. It also helps you tie emotional meaning to your memories. A large body of data also shows that the amygdala participates in odor processing, particularly relating to emotion and memory.
One reason for the strong link between olfaction, or sense of smell, and emotional memories is the location of the olfactory bulb. This area of the brain receives sensory information from the nose and is linked to the amygdala and hippocampus.
For this reason, the smell of something can elicit feelings of nostalgia. In a study from 2015, researchers asked 160 volunteers to smell 12 scents. Some were foods, including apple pie and cotton candy, while others, such as Christmas trees and baby powder, were not. As the volunteers smelled each scent, they rated how nostalgic it made them feel.
Most of the scents invoked nostalgia more significantly than the music had in previous research. The most nostalgia-inducing scent was pumpkin pie spice, followed by Channel number 5 perfume and lavender flowers. It isn’t purely the food you eat that can evoke strong memories but the smells that accompany them.
Researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity while people perform mental tasks. The brain scans showed that the amygdala and hippocampus are more active when people have memories linked to odors rather than pictures. In other words, smelling childhood food causes a much stronger emotional response than seeing an image of it.
Food nostalgia is a powerful phenomenon that can be triggered by more than tasting meals and candies from your childhood. Smelling certain aromas can bring you back to a different time, often evoking strong emotions.
The Proust phenomenon refers to this involuntary memory, often triggered by smells. The amygdala and hippocampus play a role in these vivid memories, as they are responsible for emotional regulation and memory storage and sit next to the olfactory bulb.
With these areas of the brain working together, it isn’t surprising that a smell can bring back distant memories. And that’s how food can act as a pathway to your past, conjuring up nostalgia and powerful emotional responses.
- PLoS One. Understanding the reminiscence bump: A systematic review.
- Neuroreport. Brain regions supporting intentional and incidental memory: a PET study.
- Cortex. The “Proust phenomenon”: Odor-evoked autobiographical memories triggered by direct amygdala stimulation in human.
- Memory. Scent-evoked nostalgia.
- Neuropsychologia. Neuroimaging evidence for the emotional potency of odor-evoked memory.