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Marcel Proust's reminiscence through the madeleine.

Updated: Sep 19, 2023


In every little cake lies a treasure trove of stories to tell and precious moments to relive. That's why Marcel Proust made such a fuss about his "Madeleine", taking us back to the blessed days of his childhood.


Do you know the story of the little Madeleine?

The madeleine is a small shell-shaped cake that the narrator of Marcel Proust's novel "In Search of Lost Time" dips in tea, bringing back memories of his childhood. This phenomenon is called involuntary memory, because it is not the result of a conscious effort, but a sensation that awakens images from the past. Proust describes this experience with great poetry and finesse, showing how smell and flavor are the only faithful witnesses to lost time.

The madeleine is a small shell-shaped cake that the narrator of Marcel Proust's novel "In Search of Lost Time" dips in tea, bringing back memories of his childhood.
memories revived by this little cake

Marcel Proust's reminiscence through the madeleine. "I brought to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had left a piece of madeleine to soften. But the instant the crumbly sip of cake touched my palate, I flinched, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me."


Unaware that it was his hippocampus that was being activated.


The hippocampus plays a crucial role in memory formation

The hippocampus is a structure located in the center of our brain, named after the seafaring animal. In 1953, a serious medical error revealed its importance in memory formation. To treat Henry Molaison's epilepsy, part of his brain was removed. "Deprived of his hippocampus, he suffered from amnesia until his death in 2008. He was even unable to form new memories.


The hippocampus is particularly responsible for consolidating episodic memories, i.e. memories linked to specific events and experiences. When a memory is formed, it records information about the event, place, emotion and context associated with the experience. This information is then replicated and stored in other areas of the brain, enabling the formation of long-term memories.


Involuntary memory

Involuntary memory is the phenomenon whereby memories arise spontaneously without the conscious will to remember. These memories can come from our senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch. One of the most common forms of involuntary memory is the action of reminiscence, which refers to the involuntary retrieval of past memories when we are confronted with situations similar to those we have previously experienced, and which arise spontaneously in our minds.


Reminiscence: memories that arise involuntarily

Our memory awakens and buried memories resurface. These moments of reminiscence are both mysterious and wonderful, as they allow us to plunge back into the past of our lives.

The action of reminiscence can occur in different ways, sometimes it's a sensation we've already seen, or it can manifest as more detailed memories. The trigger for reminiscence can be varied: it can be a place, a smell, a song, a person or even an emotion that recalls a past memory. These memories, even if they seem lost in the meanders of our brain, can be revived as if an invisible thread were tightening, linking us to our past.


Sensory memory

Smells and tastes are closely linked to our emotions and memories. When we smell an odor or taste a particular flavor, our brain often associates it with a specific emotional context in which these sensations were first captured. These associations between smells, tastes and the emotions created during our first exposure explain why they can be so powerful in triggering memories. Proust's madeleine symbolizes the deep connection between our memory and our senses. Gustatory, olfactory and tactile sensations can awaken precious memories, even the earliest ones. When eating a madeleine, according to Marcel Proust, the sensations of the present merge with memories of the past, creating an enchanting experience.


Proust's madeleine symbolizes the deep connection between our memory and our senses. Gustatory, olfactory and tactile sensations can awaken precious memories, even the oldest ones. When eating a madeleine, according to Marcel Proust, the sensations of the present merge with memories of the past, creating an enchanting experience.


Reminiscence of the culinary delights of elders

For our elders, culinary memories are of particular importance. Like the famous madeleine, tastes and smells can transport them instantly into their memories. The simple act of recalling culinary memories can stimulate their appetite and make them want to enjoy them again.

Reminiscence of delicious childhood meals is therefore an important aspect to consider in supporting the elderly in their daily lives, allowing them to enjoy again those meals that shaped their youth and lives, giving them an opportunity to reconnect with their roots and recall precious memories. Above all, to nourish their bodies and minds in a positive way.


Reminiscence can also promote social interaction

By sharing their memories with family, caregivers, friends or home help, reminiscence encourages meaningful conversation, helping to alleviate the feelings of loneliness and anxiety often present in the elderly.

Seniors have accumulated a wealth of experience and stories throughout their lives. For them, telling their life stories and sharing their experiences can be a way of feeling valued, and helps us to understand their past, their culture and their values. Their life story is much more than a succession of events. It's a mosaic of memories, lessons learned and moments that have shaped a person's identity.


Don't hesitate to ask your elderly loved ones about their fascinating stories and traditional recipes. You'll be pleasantly surprised!



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