Can Smells Help you Learn Better?

Sometimes when I encounter a certain smell an old memory suddenly comes back or an association with something or someone is triggered. Many people use essential oils to create certain emotions so there seems to be a connection between fragrance and feelings or memory.

So can smells help you to learn better? Different Smells influence our emotions and mood in specific ways which studies have shown. Our mood and feelings directly affect our learning ability and motivation. So using certain smells can help you study more efficiently by getting you in the right mood. Creating a link on purpose between a fact and a scent for an easy recall is not (yet) a proven technique. So indirectly scents can help by choosing a calming Lavender for breaks and Rosemary during study for increased alertness.

But which smells are responsible for what kind of emotional reaction and how can a student use the power of scents to improve the laerning process?

How to use smells to support studying

A conscious way of using smells that I used already very often is to actively notice it. As described in my article about the exam day it is crucial to embrace success after you have passed your test. Once you leave the test center stop for a few minutes and focus on what you see and smell. This gets linked to your current feeling of success so that for future tests (or even other situations where courage is required) you can recall that specific moment by remembering the details. Really inhaling moments of success is not only a study skill to use after an exam. Whenever I achieved something great I take a moment, sit down to deeply enjoy the moment and commit my current environment to memory. In this way, I can relive it anytime I need an emotial boost.

With this little trick which really works great, you can put yourself into the winning mode before a challenging task and the smell plays an essential part in recalling that emotion. So are there any studies that support this? Actually, the connection between scents and emotions even has a name and is called the “Proust effect” and is named after Marcel Proust who investigated this in a study. 

To explain this let’s take a look at some brain areas and their complex names with a simplified explanation:

  • Olfactory system – Located in the forebrain it is responsible for our sense of smell by processing information received from nerve cells within our nose
  • Hippocampus – The hippocampus is very important for dealing with our memories, especially our long-term memory.
  • Amygdala – This almond shaped section of the brain is responsible for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation.

Researchers proposed that the Proust effect is caused by the close proximity of these brain areas. In order to study the relationship of the Olfactory system to Hippocampus and Amygdala researchers conducted a study in 2012 where they showed participants disturbing footage of surgeries and accidents. During the video, the viewers were either exposed to the smell of Cassis, differently colored lights behind the screen or background music. A week later they were asked to reflect on the video while being exposed to the same stimulus during watching the footage. The memories of those who were exposed to smell (or lights) were significantly less pleasant than or the participants that listened to music.

These results were not entirely unexpected. War veterans that were exposed to the smell of diesel or blood showed the Proust effect by recalling what is called implicit memory and was later named “mind pops” as a description of spontaneous memories triggered by a scent.

Another study was conducted by psychologist Mark Moss in 2003 where he exposed groups of test takers to lavender or rosemary. Rosemary is known to have an arousing effect while lavender is considered more calming or even sedating. Compared to the control groups “Rosemary students” did much better and “Lavender participants” performed worth on attention-based tasks. Furthermore, Moss measure an increased level of a substance in the student’s blood that is related to an increased brain cell activity. 

What are the different effects of scents?

First, let’s take a look at the effect of certain smells which have been found out through studies and researches around the globe: 

  • Lavender – Calming, used on breaks increases concentration during the tasks
  • Rosemary – Increased memory and alertness
  • Bergamot – germ-killing benefits (influenza), calming, provides energy
  • Lemon – increased accuracy
  • Cedarwood – Improved brain patterns, decreased inattention and hyperactivity
  • Jasmine – Sleep aid, leads to a more restful night
  • Peppermint – Enhanced alertness, improves the accuracy of memory
  • Rose – Reduce anxiety, help with grieving and shock 

As you can see there is quite a variety of effects that can be used to improve a study room.

Apply smells to the perfect study environment

When you read a book or try to focus on a topic alertness and concentration are a key factor. Peppermint and rosemary were found to support an attentive mood in various studies I have found.

Both Lavender and Bergamot with a calming and re-energizing effect are great to be used in breaks to recharge your batteries for the next round of study.

To support a quality rest and have a relaxing sleep Jasmine is said to be the scent of choice.

And maybe when the exam didn’t go as expected use a Rose scent to recover and help with grieving and shock?

This sounds like a good combination of smells to be applied during a study session to keep your mood up. But what is the best way to distribute the scents in your room(s)?

Methods to introduce scents into your study environment

There are many ways to distribute scents in your study or office room or even throughout the house. Let’s take a look at the different methods with their Pro and Cons:

  • Candles – Probably a good way to try out different scents and see if you like it (and if it helps) before going for a more expensive solution like a diffuser. Candles are only for temporary use and you need to keep an eye on them especially with kids and pets. The candle and smell itself have a relaxing, romantic and calming light effect which is probably not a good idea for a study room. 
  • Essential oils– Essential oils are the luxury version of applying scent to your environment. The diffuser itself in an acceptable quality like this one from Amazon is around 25$, but high-quality oils are not cheap. It is important to buy a good oil where no synthetic materials have been added. Recommended oils and oil sets from shape.com which are safe to use are (Amazon links follow): doTERRA Introductory Kit (affordable to try out if this work for you and helps your study focus), and a whole aromatherapy set (also from doTerra).
  • Incentive sticks – Having lived in Asia for several years I am quite used to the smell and use of incentive sticks. They are easy to use, inexpensive and “switch off” automatically once they are used up. A good ventilation is a must since they produce quite some smoke over time.
  • Flowers and herbs – A common method and probably the safest and cheapest is to dry flower or herbs and put them into tiny bags. These can be decoratively placed throughout the room and removed in case the smell is getting too intensive. Unfortunately, they do not last too long but are a good beginners alternative.

Smell and how we react to it is a very personal matter. Experiences from our childhood and individual mind pops make it difficult to give a one-size-fits-all recommendation. It is proven that smells influence our mood and behavior so it is definitely worth a try. Leave nothing to chance when you are preparing for your next test and smell your way to success.

Related questions

What essential oil is the best for studying? To increase your focus and attention choose something vivid like rosemary or citrus. To prepare yourself for a good night sleep which is equally essential for your study rely on a calming lavender scent.

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