Involuntary Memory

The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it. 

Marcel Proust

Involuntary memory is a subcomponent of memory that occurs when hints encountered in everyday life elicit memories of the past without conscious effort. It is also known as involuntary explicit memory, involuntary conscious memory, involuntary aware memory, and most commonly, involuntary autobiographical memory.

Dunking a biscuit
Tea biscuit dunking is one of many examples of cues that can elicit involuntary memories, as evidenced by Marcel Proust.

Marcel Proust 1895
Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust was the first person to coin the term involuntary memory, in his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). Proust did not have any background in psychology, and worked primarily as a writer.

Proust viewed involuntary memory as containing the “essence of the past”, asserting that it was missing from voluntary memory. In his novel, he describes an incident where he was eating tea soaked cake, and a childhood memory of eating tea soaked cake with his aunt was “revealed” to him. From this vision, he then proceeded to be reminded of the childhood home he was in, and even the town itself. This becomes a theme throughout In Search of Lost Time, with impressions reminding Proust of past experiences. He called these “involuntary memories”.

TIL: In Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84, the main character Aomame spends an entire fall locked in an apartment. She fills her days eating, sleeping, working out, and slowly reading through In Search of Lost Time.

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