Proust Mapping Combray and the Mapping of Brains

Marcel Proust imagined that he accessed memories by chance encounters with sensations that conjured the associations of a specific moment identified with his childhood with a shudder that passed throughout his entire body.  In a precursor to the sensory cortex map, Proust–whose father Adrien Proust was not only a physician but had studied neurasthenia and diagnoses of stroke and hysteria, as well as being a professor of Hygiene, and introduced his son Marcel, after Marcel was diagnosed with neurasthenia, to the neurologist Edouard Brissot, in hopes to help his son’s conditions of asthma and poor sleep.  Proust opted on Bristol’s advice to seek the cure and clinic of Paul Solliers, whose expertise in emotional memory provided something of a model for Proust’s own exploration of the deep ties he felt to his mother, immediately after her death, in the cork-lined room where he withdrew to write what would become an early map of involuntary memories, and their ties to the sensory motor cortex, best known as À la recherche du temps perdu.

Proust’s detailed and vividly focussed explorations of the depth of his emotional memories offer a sort of counter-model to the diagnosis of neurasthenia, and to the neurological mapping of hysteria and neurasthenia on the ventricles or sectors of brain.  His extended meditation on the origins of memory and their sense-based nature of such deeply emotional and cognitive ties that he had developed–or failed to develop–with different members of his tightly-knit family, as a therapy of remapping of past emotions by found memories.   The Proustian shudder at the immediate recovery and recognition of the past from unexpected stimulation recalls how the neurologist Penfield later believed that a memory could be activated or stimulated electrically, based on his own stimulations of sites in the brain; for Proust,, the associations of a taste or smell would bring with them not only the object in question, but the emotionally rich quality of where it was first consumed, and the setting with which it was associated:  the primal memory of sharing tea was triggered by the madeleine once more, an argument that was so persuasive that Patricia Wells even sought to map the availability of these madeleines in Paris for readers of the New York Times, as if they would carry similar meanings even for those who didn’t eat them in childhood.  But Proust’s meditation on the sense-based nature of involuntary memories that suddenly unfolded for the mind proved less of a record of lived geography–or edible geography–than an introspective examination of the links of pathways in the brain.  Yet for Proust, the madeleine was most important, of course, as a key to keeping her memory alive.

Because Proust described with exquisite richness how he was flooded, upon that unmistakable taste, not only with the memory of eating them but the memories that the biscuit could produce, so that he was suddenly in contact with the “immense edifice” of the past, there must be some curiosity for just how specific that taste was.  The madeleine was not only a taste, but served as if a stand-in for conjuring scenes of his lost childhood on the page in the small cork-lined room where he retired to write each night.  Proust clearly theorized, as the son of a close associate of the neurologist Charcot, how memories opened reluctantly but almost spontaneously to the mind, prompted by connections to taste or smell, as if the senses provided an entrance to a sort of map to time past, able to well up and immerse oneself in recovered events of a lost time, as if ready to be once more witnessed, even though the same events long seemed dead.  Both Renaissance and Enlightenment physicians had long mapped the neurological stimuli that the brain processed through the ganglia and pathways that branched off of the spinal column, to affirm the importance of the brain as a site for processing how the soul inhabited the body, but for Proust, the triggering of the pathways that were evoked by recognizable sensations provided the pathways that his writing of the depths of memories traced.



Bartholomew Eustachi, Spinal Column, engraved by Giulio de’ Musi  (1552; rep. by Lancisi, 1714)


Proust famously took the sense-based nature of involuntary memories as the nervous stimuli to trace the deep emotional associations of a past that was in danger of fading in the years immediately following the death of his mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, so deeply was he preoccupied by fears he would lose emotional touch with her or worse actually be complicit in allowing her love to fade or disappear.  Was there another map that we can trace of the excavation of these memories?  With the online publication of the manuscript pages of these notebooks, recently seen as evidence of an extensive editing of which future manuscripts may not bear traces, one can see the active construction of a sort of mental map by which his revisions, cancellations, and additions themselves constructed the chain of associations he described, amassing further details and memories on the page to better capture the mental images by which he reveled in being overpowered–and was so committed to rediscovering and keeping alive by allowing himself to map his memories of her through the recalling of sensations that transported him to his past.

The opening up of lost memories was, for Proust, almost natural–and almost physiological.  As befits describing a process that is almost natural, at the end of the opening chapter of Swann’s Way, Proust used the extended metaphor of the unfurling of life-like leaves and flowers in a parlor game of watching Japanese folded papers ineluctably expand in a bowl of water–an import of the late nineteenth century mode of Japonaiserie–to describe the embodied nature that his memories came to take in his mind and by extension on the page.  The device of paper flowers that expanded in a life-like way, as if in stop-action photography, was something like a microcosm of the materializing of Combray, the childhood home which the second chapter returns to in more topographically fleshed out detail, whose church, bakeries, city streets, former inhabitants and of gardens materialized before his eyes as if in spontaneous fashion, and on which he leads readers on the most privileged sort of tour.

The concrete metaphor of an expanding paper garden of folded flowers prepare readers for the unfolding of a map of associations that conjures up material beings and places for his mind’s eye, transporting Proust toward a chain of further associations tied to a sudden realization that he has returned to a specific place not available to “the memory of the intelligence,” but waiting to be born in a deeper region of his mind, rooted in instinctual familiarity with a privileged taste.

The taste of a madeleine with his tea becomes  a metaphor for how the act of writing opens a previously inaccessible perceptions of the past materialized in his mind that had seemed lost to memory, that are now recovered in exquisite detail:  even if “the information it gives about the past preserves nothing of the past itself,” leading him on a sort of mental road map of associations that opened concretely tactile forms that open which had been lost to his senses once again, in the manner the  Japanese folded papers that could not be seen to suggest forms expand to take form when immersed in sitting water; out of forgotten ghostly forms, figures and places “assume colors and distinctive shapes,” and a population emerges of the past as he suddenly acknowledges “flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable” that previously seemed effectively unknown.  The evocation of the place seems the recovery of a mental map, a mysterious communion with oneself that re-creates tactile images of a lost Combray.  But when one looks at the pages of his notebooks, the illusion of such a passive unfolding–an idealistic image of something like a moment of grace or mystical communion–is shown as tightly bound up in the writing process of filling those notebooks with ideas and then fuller versions recollections that were augmented as he wrote them out.

Proust was of course engaged in the problem of summoning up that past every night as he entered his private cork-lined writing chamber in his quilted bathrobe, to immerse himself in a task of recalling “lost time” in his five-volume À la recherche du temps perdu.  In an isolated fashion, Proust dedicated himself to  the very processes of mental associations that he recorded for posterity in the manuscript notebooks that mapped his account of the past by revisions, additions and associations that might occur on a second glance.  The cork-lined quasi-monastic sound-proof cellula–a room he fashioned after a monastic cel, lined with cork as a site to eliminate the outside world–created a private space for expansively investigating memories, where he could dedicate himself to dilating upon them to follow them on a map of the past as it unfolded– and on which the past unfolded with material detail in the manner water saturated those paper flowers and led them to assume new  shape, color, and vivid detail.  This was a rhetorical trick.   But it depended on making a sort of map by which he allowed readers to enter into the past that was so vivid to him, so that they appeared to do so at the very time that he explored it.

The notebooks reveal the extent of associations that Proust followed as he wrote and re-read, as if adding new converging memories to those existing and actively revising descriptions of the first, and allowing, as it were, the flowers to unfold, as does the landscape around Combray and the town itself.  These are mental creations, but they unfolded on the page.



An inveterate archeologist of the emotions, Proust described how he hoped to recover the subjects of childhood that are almost alive, “palpitating deep inside me,” as a “visual memory which is attached to this taste and is trying to follow it to me,” but is “struggling” to “reach the clear surface of my consciousness” and “to rise up from the deepest part of me.”  The intensity of his writing is suggested in the pages stored in the Bibliothèque National de France‘s collections.  He described, more poetically, the mapping of associations, intense memories, and deep personal bonds as opening, almost passively, as the Japanese paper gardens unfolded in water, but were excavated with great care from his memories as he followed their associations to their end.

We now openly discuss mapping the neurology of the physical mind in far more concrete terms than Proust, and indeed use maps to clarify the sort of truth-claims we like to make about specific individual minds.  Mapping the mind is a felicitous phrase recent interest in neurological explanations and diagnoses.  The figure of the map both because suggests a new frontier, able to be charted and understood by new cartographers, and gives such clear epistemic or diagnostic powers to the brain-visualizations that MRI’s and other media produce.  This mind is less of a thing in which we are in control, but something that is more likely to control us in ways we can’t fully ever actually apprehend.  In place of the poetic “My mind to me a kingdome is/Such present joyes therein I find,” the question “Is it Me or My Mind?” dominates internet chatrooms and online discussion.  One of the classic images that maps the body onto its primary motor cortex has been recently called into question as brain maps have provided an increasingly complex maps of the motor cortex were drawn; even as it is abandoned, this textbook image suggests an initial map that modeled the mind’s motor cortex by the gross proportions  of motor nerves dedicated to sense-perceptions and motion:  the mind is concerned here not as being the site of memories, as for Penfield, but a site where we can map the nerve endings that go to our body parts, in a way that might tell us something about what it is to be human:  look not only at that prehensile thumb, but that huge gaping mouth, opening wide as if to expect a tongue depressor, that shows how refined are our abilities for speech, among other things.


Motor Homunculus



The efforts in the last two decades to create a far more detailed neurologically map of the brain have far surpassed the homunculus of the motor cortex, rendering it outdated and rudimentary.  Whereas the familiar homunculus was gloriously embodied, we now map by embodying the brain.  We are all increasingly familiar encountering images of brains that make claims of scientific description, brain-images that “make claims on us because they portray kinds of brains,” as Joseph Dumit has recently observed, that raise questions about the mapping the normality of a brain.  The brain image has come to offer an image of the “objective self,” indeed, against which we can fashion or shape new objective selves; while some of these afflictions definitely have biological origins, the mapped image becomes a bit of a objectified talisman of one’s identity.


Objective Selves

The essentialization of different kinds of brains is encouraged by the very imaging techniques that are used to distinguish one brain from another, and in an era that places a premium on neurological  meaning, the mapping of the mind by a PET scan or an MRI is readily believed to promise a diagnosis of schizophrenia, depression, ADD, Alzheimer’s or even normalcy.  We cannot tell exactly what is going on in these brains, but they do look different, or “map” differently. Objective truth lies, of course, in the map.  Images of the mind, Dumit argues, serve as forms that unconsciously persuade us of their rightness as facts, and then to move from the identification of a “categorical difference between two types of humans that corresponds naturally to the two different kinds of brains.”  For Dumit argues that the resulting brain image puts us face-to-face with the question of our own normalcy, in ways we wouldn’t have considered earlier, by inviting us to map our minds in relation to a mapped normal.

“How do we know,” Wittgenstein famously asked, “that we have a brain, if we have never seen it?”  Proust saw the mind and saw the process of recollection on the written page.  In our more neurologically obsessed culture, a culture also obsessed with mapping, an MRI will illuminate the ‘connective tracts’ in the brain and “the resulting map may allow a better understanding of what drives the disorder” and allow us to seek treatments from Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) as “needed to tweak this circuitry,” David Dobbs put it.  High-dimensional brain mapping of the hippocampus can offer new insights of the location of depression and of its state.   These visualizations of the brain itself provides a basis for identification that are, comfortingly or discomfortingly (your pick), readily available online:

Depressed:Not Depressed PET

(One may perhaps even map, with enough screening of brains, what states have more citizens who are depressed:

Depression Map


I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this reporting, though the map is perhaps more telling for what regions have no data available.)  But, cautions the Financial Times, “for anyone daunted by a map of the London underground, with nearly 300 stations on its maze of lines, it is probably best not to try to visualize a chart of the human brain” and its 100 billion neurons.  There is the attempt to do so, however, in the stupendous Brain Activity Map, which looks a lot like something that could have come from a 3D printer, and on which hopes have been pinned to inaugurate a “new golden age of brain research” to the tune of 3 billion dollars:


Brain Acess Map


Back to Combray.   Proust used notebooks to unearth his own memories in something like a material record of their  excavation, as he followed, intuitively and to some extent impulsively, memories that expands to reveal something like another map, or a record, if not of Combray– of which he was convinced nothing in fact “subsists”–his own personal experiences there; he is sure “all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings, and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this . . . is acquiring form and solidity,” and “emerged, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.” If the familiarity of taste is able to bear  the “immense edifice of memory” as they “rejoined his consciousness” for his ready inspection and enjoyment and exploration, the act of recording these memories provide a map of his own explorations of the past.  Even if “everything had come apart” and “nothing survived” of these recollections that were “abandoned so long outside my memory,” he discovered a map of recollection, addition and associations.

Part of this map was in the practice of writing itself, we see, when the long, baroque, interminable sentences provided prompts to their own further and subsequent investigation of what could be elicited to rejoin his consciousness through the very act of their description:  the immersive act of writing seems a chase for images of “recollections abandoned so long outside my memory,” rematerializing them on the page, much as the material topographic prompts on maps can provide a sudden recognition of site and location, and place.




If smell and taste persist even “when nothing subsists of an old past,” “waiting, hoping upon the ruins of all the rest, like lost souls,” the recovery of the emotional map of where he lived under the neglectful eye of his aunt Léonie, and so longed for his mother, provided the tools to create a mental topography he could actively re-inhabit at night.  The topography was an emotional one, to be sure, rather than bearing the objective descriptive qualities of a “map.”  It was as if, Proust wrote, in his mind the family country house he described “consisted only of two floors connected by a slender staircase and as though it had always been seven o’clock in the evening there.” He knew that the place existed objectively. “But since what I recalled would have been supplied to me only by my voluntary memory, the memory of intelligence, and since the information it give about the past preserves nothing of the past itself, I would never have had any desire to think about the rest of Combray,” he allowed, before acknowledging that there might be some spark that an accidental encounter would expose to him again.

The fear of loss and disappearance was a source of trouble, he admitted: “Will [the past fragmented memory] reach the clear surface of my consciousness—this memory, this old moment which the attraction of an identical moment has come from so far to invite, to move, to raise up from the deepest part of me?” And then it appeared.  Bent over his own map of his mind–and of his memories–that he was remaking and refashioning by the process of his writing.

But the project of mapping such a newly comprehensive visualization of the brain just might jump-start the economy.



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Filed under Brain Activity Map, brain imaging, brain mapping, homunculus, mapping the brain, Marcel Proust, memory, neurasthenia, Sensory Cortex Map

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