How the Smell of Food Can Enable ‘Time Travel’


Summary: Study explores 3D-printed flavor-based cues in memory recall during old age, discovering the smells of certain foods from youth may prompt mental ‘time travel’ to the past with enhanced memory of early exposure to food.

Source: Lancaster University

Elderly people exposed to food flavors from their youth were able to “time travel” into the past with enhanced memory of the event.

Research titled “It took me back 25 years in one fell swoop: Flavor-based self-generated clues for self-defining memories later in life” published in Human machine interaction is by Professor Corina Sas of Lancaster University, Dr Tom Gayler formerly of Lancaster University and Vaiva Kalnikaité of Dovetailed Ltd. Their work explored the feasibility of 3D-printed flavor-based cues for memory recall in old age.

Working with 12 older adults, they collected 72 memories, half involving food and the other half not involving food, each recalled twice. It ranged from grilled mackerel at a golden wedding to eating strawberries in the hospital after giving birth.

For food memory, researchers worked with participants to create tailored flavor-based cues for each. 3D-printed flavor-based cues are small, edible gel-like balls, modeling the original food, that are easier to swallow with more intense flavors, without requiring all the ingredients and preparation.

Professor Sas said: “Our results indicated that personalized 3D-printed flavor-based cues have rich sensory and emotional qualities supporting strong reminiscence retrieval, particularly when distinctly matched to food in the original experience. and elicit emotionally positive self-defined memories.”

All participants were able to provide rich sensory narratives when prompted by flavor-based cues, with most of the details not present in the previous free recall.

Recalling a green Thai curry dinner in Cambodia, one attendee recalled: We went into the kitchen, which was very basic and cooked all sorts of greens, which I have no idea what they were sitting on the ground. And then we helped them cook them, sauté them, then we helped them prepare them…”

But after being exposed to the 3D-printed flavor-based cue of Thai green curry, the participant gave a more detailed recollection of the “chopping sounds of chopping vegetables, me sitting cross-legged on the floor with my friend, chatting together. And then when we would go out, we would put stuff on the tables, the rest of the group would go out and we would sit on long tables outside, in front of the school, so it’s outside in the open air to eat.

A striking result was the large number of memories reported by flavors that were recalled with a strong sense of being taken back in time.

Participants said, “Roast beef and horseradish took me back 25 years in one fell swoop. . .I could sit at the table in the room. . .I ate that, and it actually caused among all the memories, a pretty strong reaction actually. Suddenly I was back.

Interestingly, the mere act of eating the tail was seen as a bodily re-enactment of the original event: “It kind of triggers a few extra sensations. Maybe when you taste it, you imagine yourself there”.

After being exposed to the 3D-printed flavor-based signal of Thai green curry, the participant yielded a more detailed memory. Credit: Lancaster University

The researchers say their research is particularly relevant to dementia. Participants spoke about the importance of food memories based on their own experiences caring for loved ones.

One participant whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease said, “As soon as she smelled and tasted the food, she would say something like, ‘Oh, that’s like old-fashioned food. It brings me back.” She felt it was something she had had a long time ago.

Another participant suggested a food scrapbook to trigger memories of past events in people with dementia.

Professor Sas said: “The 3D-printed flavors prompted memory retrieval, eliciting thrill-rich and powerful positive emotional experiences that participants deeply enjoyed.”

Dr Gayler said: “Working alongside people to create flavor-based cues has highlighted just how powerful yet underutilized this connection is. Our design approach bridged this gap and showed the potential for future applications to create rich, multi-sensory cues.”

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Dr. Vaiva Kalnikaitė said, “We finally have a technology that can help reconstruct memories using the flavor and smell of different foods in very compact forms. These are the strongest clues to help us remember.”

About this olfactory memory research news

Author: Gillian Whitworth
Source: Lancaster University
Contact: Gillian Whitworth – Lancaster University
Image: Image is credited to Lancaster University

Original research: Access closed.
“It took me back 25 years in a single leap”: self-generated flavor-based clues for later life-defining memories” by Corina Sas et al. Human machine interaction


“It took me back 25 years in a single leap”: self-generated flavor-based clues for later life-defining memories

“…these short, plump cupcakes called small madeleines […] I brought to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had dipped a piece of cake. As soon as the hot liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shiver ran through my whole body. […] an exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses […] and suddenly the memory comes back. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings in Combray […] when I went to say hello to her in her room, my aunt Léonie gave it to me by first dipping it in her own cup of real or linden […] when from the distant past nothing remains, after people have died, after things have broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more inconsistent, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain in balance for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us […] the vast structure of memory (Proust, 2006p. 61–63).

The quote above captures the evocative power of the chemical senses to trigger memory recall with a sense of time travel, or the so-called Phenomenon of Proust.

While the phenomenon has been explored primarily in relation to the sense of smell, Proust’s account also involves the sense of taste (Gibson, 2016) as noted in our introductory quote and this additional sentence: “the sight of the little madeleine had reminded me of nothing before I tasted it » (Proust, 2006, p. 63).


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