Memories From a Cup of Tea (Seamon)

By John Seamon
Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behavior, Wesleyan University
Senior Research Scientist, Olin Neuropsychiatric Research Institute

Jonathan Callan’s Seven Volumes, 2009 has its origin in Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), a multi-volume novel that Proust began in 1909 and ended with his death in 1922. For students of memory, its first volume is most often cited, for in it Proust provides an irresistible description of involuntary remembering, now called cue-dependent recall by cognitive scientists, that has never been equaled. Triggered by the taste of a morsel of French pastry dipped in a cup of tea, Proust’s long dormant childhood memories spring forth like characters on a stage.

… one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, … She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. … Whence did it come? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, … when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea … And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me … immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents; … and with the house the town, … and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

We’ve all had similar experiences, triggered by a taste or a smell, but we shouldn’t think of those dormant memories as phantoms lurking in the hidden recesses of our mind waiting for the right sensory cue to release them. Memory isn’t a collection of snapshots filed away in the brain. It’s a mental process evidenced by our thoughts and actions that is guided by different brain functions through neutrally transmitted impulses. Memory is a record of our perceptual interpretations and their various associations, not literal copies of experienced events. Proust sought to relate memory and time by trying to bring forth long forgotten events into conscious awareness. In searching for lost time, his vivid recollections inform us about those fond interpretations.

Quote abridged from:
Proust, M. (1913-27). Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way. French Pleiade edition translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Vintage. pp. 48-51.