Involuntary memory is a conception of human memory in which cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort. Its binary opposite, voluntary memory, is a deliberate effort to recall the past. The term was coined by French author Marcel Proust. From this philosophical root, involuntary memory has become a part of modern psychology.
Although involuntary memory is commonly connected to the literature of Marcel Proust, it had long before been recognized by psychologists, most notably, the pioneering memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus. Writing about it in the first scientific study of memory, Ebbinghaus described the basis of both involuntary and voluntary memory, providing a groundwork for generations of memory researchers that followed.
Involuntary memory is a concept made famous by the French writer Marcel Proust in his novel ‘In Search of Lost Time – or Remembrance of Things Past’, although the idea was also developed in his earlier writings. It is, thus, sometimes referred to as Proustian memory.
Proust contrasts involuntary memory with voluntary memory. The latter designates memories retrieved by intelligence, that is, memories produced by putting conscious effort into remembering events, people, and places. Proust’s narrator laments that such memories are inevitably partial, and do not bear the essence of the past. The most famous instance of involuntary memory by Proust is known as the episode of the Madeleine, yet there are at least half a dozen other examples, as in ‘In Search of Lost Time’, including such distinct memories produced for instance by the scent of a public lavatory on the Champs-Élysées.
The function of involuntary memory in the novel, however, is not self-evident. It has been argued that involuntary memory unlocks the Narrator’s past as the subject of his novel, but also that he does not, for example, begin writing until many years after the episode of the Madeleine. Other critics have suggested that it is not the recovery of the past, per se, that is significant for the Narrator, but rather the happiness produced by his recognition of the past in a present moment. Critics have pointed out that involuntary memories are empyreal and poignant, and cannot effectively support a sustained narrative. It has been noted that the difference between Proust’s uncompleted ‘Jean Santeuil’ and ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is that voluntary memories provide the connective tissue between such moments, making up the vast bulk of the narrative of the later novel.
In developmental psychology and in psychological research, involuntary memory was systematically studied by Soviet psychologists who investigated primarily the interrelation between specific human activity – other than deliberate remembering – the place of the material to be remembered, and the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of recall. The distinction between involuntary and voluntary memory – such memory that results from deliberate memorization as opposed to memory as a by-product of other, non-mnemonic activity – was subsequently developed by many Soviet psychologists.