Thinking about memories and food recalls the seminal novel “In Search of Lost Time” by French writer Marcel Proust, who died a century ago on November 18, 1922.
In “By Swann’s Way”, the first instalment of the play, the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea instantly triggers a memory of his childhood, the protagonist.
Since then, this experience that (almost) all of us have had has been known as the “Proustian moment” or “Madeleine de Proust”.
Those memories associated with food “are formed without conscious editing,” as Susan Krauss Whitbourne, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told BBC Travel.
“They involve very basic, non-verbal areas of the brain that can bypass your awareness,” he explained.
“That’s why you can have strong emotional reactions when eating food that triggers those deep unconscious memories.
“Even though you can’t put those memories into words, you know there is ‘something’ that food triggers deep in your past. The memory goes beyond the food itself, to the associations you have with that memory from long ago. , either with a place or a person”.
But, in this relationship between food and memory, can some help enhances it?
According to psychologist Kimberley Wilson, who has a master’s degree in nutrition, some foods and drinks can have surprisingly positive and negative effects on memory.
“Memory is our ability to recall recent or distant past information.
We have three types of memory: immediate, working, and long-term.
Our immediate memory can only hold information for – you guessed it – a short time: you would use it to dial a phone number someone just told you without writing it down.
We use our working memory to think in action.
Tasks like having a conversation help us remember what the person just said, understand its meaning, connect it to the previous conversation, and then share our thoughts.
With our long-term memory, we remember information from days or years in the past.
The memories stored in it have moved from our memory to immediate memory in a process called “consolidation”.
And it turns out that what we eat can impact how well our memory works.
In a study of older adults with memory problems, 500 millilitres of purple grape juice per day for 12 weeks enabled them to learn more words than the placebo group.
Studies with children eating 240 grams of fresh blueberries allowed them to remember more words and recall them more accurately 2 hours later.
So, are purple grapes and blueberries special?
Well, more or less. Both are rich sources of anthocyanins, a plant chemical called polyphenols that gives them deep colour. These polyphenol compounds are also found in other berries.
When metabolized in the body, they improve the flexibility of blood vessels and blood flow to our brains. This, in turn, provides more energy, nutrients and oxygen improving our cognitive performance.
And it’s not just berries.
Long-term consumption of green tea has also been linked to improved short-term memory, working memory focus, and reduced risk of cognitive decline.
And that’s good news for chocolate lovers, too, because cocoa improves cerebral blood flow, although it needs to be dark chocolate that contains more than 70% cocoa solids to reap the benefits.
The general rule is that the healthier the diet – rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and oily fish – the larger the memory centre of the brain will be and the better the memory performance will be.