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Cognition. 2000 May 15;75(2):B41-50.

Long live Proust: the odour-cued autobiographical memory bump.

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Department of Psychology, University of Liverpool, Eleanor Rathbone Building, Bedford Street South, Liverpool, UK.


The autobiographical memory bump is an increase in the frequency of reported autobiographical memories (AMs) from a particular age range, and has been reported by numerous investigators (for reviews, see Conway, M. A. & Rubin, D. C. (1993). The structure of autobiographical memory. In A. F. Collins, S. E. Gathercole, M. A. Conway & P. E. Morris, Theories of memory. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum; Rubin, D. C., Rahhal, T. A. & Poon, L. W. (1998). Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best. Memory and Cognition, 26, 3-19) to occur in the second and third decades of life. Invariably, word labels have been used as AM cues but, given that a popular interpretation of the anecdotal 'Proust phenomenon' is that odours evoke AMs which are especially aged, we wondered if a different pattern in the AM bump might emerge if AMs were cued by odours rather than labels. Here we report an attempt to substantiate this aspect of the 'Proust phenomenon' by comparing the distributions of memories across the lifespan when cued by odour and label. Data showed that, in line with previous studies, the bump for label cues was found to peak between ages 11 and 25 years and was confirmed to be quadratic in form. In contrast, the odour-cued memory distribution peaked at 6-10 years and decreased linearly thereafter. In the earliest age interval, 6-10 years, the proportion of AMs retrieved in response to odour cues was significantly greater than that for the label cues. These results provide empirical support for the Proust phenomenon, and have more general implications for the structure and age distribution of stored AMs.

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