Menu Close

Proust Effect: A Change of Scenery Helps in Addiction Recovery

Claim Your Recovery Today!

Proust Effect: A Change of Scenery Helps in Addiction Recovery

Strange that after all these years, the scent of your first love’s perfume STILL raises the hair on the back of your neck. Or maybe it’s the soft touch of alpaca wool that transports you back to the safety of being a small child in your mother’s embrace. Perhaps a sharp whiff of Fireball whiskey sends chills down your spine from those days of carefree college parties before life had any consequences… The list goes on.

Proust Effect - Woman in Gas Mask

These floods of visceral, enveloping emotion are not as random as they seem. Involuntary memory is one way the brain trains the body how to react to the world around us. In other words: your environment controls the way you feel, and as a result, the decisions you make.

Environment Controls Brain Function

Our minds are particularly apt at pattern recognition. It makes sense if you think about it. We evolved as a species by the ability to recognize things like “red berries mean poison” and “bad smell means rotten.” But thanks to the complexity of the human brain, sensory associations are much more nuanced than that.

The spine chill that Fireball whiskey’s distinct smell evokes is a learned response from past pleasurable experiences. Marcel Proust, a French writer, first documented these sensory memory associations around the turn of the 20th century.

The Proust Effect

The Proust Effect explains why a familiar environment can hinder recovery and actually encourage relapse:

Proust’s discovery of how senses trigger memory is called the ‘madeleine’ incident. In the following excerpt, Proust describes how the taste of a mundane cake brought crashing waves of emotion out of nowhere (edited for brevity):


My mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me little plump madeleine cakes. I almost declined at first, but then mechanically, I raised it to my lips. A shudder ran through my whole body. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours. Whence did it come?

— Paraphrased from Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1913)

Familiar Triggers Create a Hostile Environment

The Proust Effect’s power to influence state of mind explains why a familiar environment can be incredibly toxic in early recovery. Even when an addict truly wants to make a commitment to change, there is only so much a person can realistically achieve inside a burning building. No amount of willpower can overcome the way involuntary memory affects choice.

Because environment is such a pervasive factor in our daily lives, it seamlessly drives the wheel of addiction and relapse without our knowledge. Here are some ways this can happen:


These are perhaps the most insidious because they pop up in very unexpected circumstances. Each of our five senses can pick up details that we don’t even realize conjure the idea of substance use. The bitter cold of winter and the smell of urban pollution are good examples of innocuous sensory inputs. They trigger the Proust Effect by driving addicts to feel stressed and subsequently seek the comfort that substance use provides.


Passing liquor stores, old pick up spots, and places associated with past use is commonplace while going about one’s daily routine. Because substance abuse occurs so close to home, addicts often find themselves completely surrounded by places that remind them of using.


Don’t relegate the idea of peer pressure to grade school only. Coworkers, family, and friends often act as enablers without even knowing it, as they themselves do not suffer from addiction. This can also come from people who function as stress triggers (think of your drama-thirsty mother-in-law).

Change of Scenery Facilitates Recovery

Eliminating all of these familiar triggers is an important first step in the journey of recovery.

Long-term recovery from addiction is all about change: changing behaviors, changing mindsets, and changing lives.

— Shatterproof, The Science of Change

The easiest, most secure way to jumpstart this kind of lasting change is to find a recovery facility that is removed from familiar triggers.  This allows addicts to step out of the burning building that drives their substance abuse and focus on finding new, healthier ways to cope.

Free of distractions.
Free of toxic people and places.
Safe from fires kindled by the Proust Effect.

All addicts have the right to a recovery that doesn’t have the odds stacked against them. If you or a loved one needs to get away from a toxic environment, contact our admissions staff to ask about the healing environment that southern California’s suburbs can offer: 855-737-7363

Posted in Addiction, Featured, Health and Wellness, Recovery, Relapse