The Proustian phenomenon: Is smell really the best way to trigger memory?

An event in London next month is billed as a two-day 'multi-sensory tour of 1900-1999'

Simmy Richman
Saturday 17 October 2015 21:07
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The “Proustian phenomenon” proposes that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense to help us recall distant memories
The “Proustian phenomenon” proposes that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense to help us recall distant memories

It is known as the “Proustian phenomenon”, and, in 2011, a team from Utrecht University in the Netherlands set out to discover whether smell really is the best way to trigger memory. Lizzie Ostrom, whose book Perfume: A Century of Scents is published this week is not convinced. “There are a lot of generalisations made and we’re still trying to understand the brain when it comes to smell. For me, music is just as powerful,” she says.

It is, though, a subject that Ostrom – who is also known as Odette Toilette – is keen to explore further. And next month, in London, Ostrom is taking part in an event called The Century (salon-london.com for tickets) that is billed as a two-day “multi-sensory tour of 1900-1999”. The Century will feature talks and music as well as food and drink in an attempt to evoke the various eras, and Ostrom will be providing a decade-by-decade guide to the smells of the times. There will be key perfumes from certain periods, certainly, but there will also be smells of “typewriter ink” and “car boots”, and for the 1960s Ostrom will attempt to recreate what the organisers describe as “hippie stink”.

“It becomes more and more about pop culture as we walk through,” Ostrom says, “and by the end it should be a strange gathering of Lynx, Impulse and old club tracks.” But what would 2015 smell like if this event were to be recreated in the future? “The scent of new Apple products has already been made,” she says, “so maybe it should be the smell of bank notes, which might not be with us much longer.”

Low on the hog

There is a video exhibit currently on display at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image called simply “How Cats Took Over the Internet”. But while it is accepted that our feline friends do indeed have a disproportionate presence online, in recent years there’s been a surge in videos of hedgehogs (right) doing cute things – washing, sneezing, having their tummies tickled, and so on.

The irony is that while their presence on the internet continues to grow, the actual number of hedgehogs in the UK is in sharp decline, down from an estimated tens of millions a few decades ago to fewer than a million now. Apparently, one in five people in the UK have never seen a hedgehog in their garden, which might explain a simultaneous rise in the numbers of the slugs and snails that hedgehogs love to eat.

So what can we do to help? Well, according to a new initiative as part of Wild About Gardens Week (26 October to 1 November), the best thing we can do is to cut a CD-sized hole in the bottom of a garden fence to give the creatures access.

It’s a simple idea, though it might be wise to check with your neighbours first if you don’t want things to get too spiky. On top of that, am I the only person who finds the timing a little strange? Surely what few hedgehogs we have left are about to go into hibernation for the winter.

Ghosts in the machine

Jamie Ross of Buzzfeed has been causing trouble at the SNP conference in Aberdeen this weekend with an interview in which Alex Salmond (right) claimed to have seen “photographic evidence” proving the existence of ghosts. With Ross’s big Twitter following, soon many were speculating on a Bruce Willis-starring biopic of the former first minister of Scotland.

Salmond told Ross that he’s seen the “pictorial” evidence of ghosts when he was the guest of honour at a hotel opening. Conventional media soon struck back to question the veracity of this somewhat bizarre exclusive when the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill said that Salmond (clearly rowing back from his overly candid admission) had told the paper that the comments were part of a “wind-up”.

Which of them will face a chorus of “och aye the whooooo” when this is settled?

Man alive

Discussions about everything from human rights to football to depression to race and masculinity … Kellie Maloney (above) in conversation … Lessons in how to brew beer … film screenings … and readings from a book called Poems That Make Grown Men Cry … There are many worthy and intriguing things happening at the Southbank Centre’s second Being a Man festival next month (southbankcentre.co.uk/bam for full info) but the bit I am booking tickets for is called Pram Jam, an event at which “dads, granddads and male carers are invited to move and groove with their little ones”.

Should give a whole new meaning to George McCrae’s 1974 classic “Rock Your Baby”.

No rhyme or reason

Another in a regular series of limericks based on recent events:

Though ‘Bake Off’ this year was inspired,

And its winner was largely admired,

There is no better drama,

Or example of karma,

Than Lord Sugar announcing ‘You’re fired!’

Twitter: @simmyrichman

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