Malcom Gladwell the author of Outliers and Tipping Point to name two of his most well known books, has a curiosity with no limits, he wanders from topic to topic littering his insightful observations with facts and statistics. His podcast Revisionist History, which I would recommend if you would like to hear stories from the past that have been overlooked and or misunderstood, has an episode called, “The dog will see you now”, in which he discusses the incredible sense of smell that dogs have, apparently, it’s between 10,000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. I will leave you to listen to that but it got me thinking about how powerful and valuable our sense of smell is when it comes to memory and learning. The classic and now debunked learning styles analysis promotes, Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic but makes no specific refence to smell or taste.
Sense of smell – Olfactory
Your sense of smell is thought to be the oldest of our senses, providing the brain with information about food, potential partners and even danger. Women actually have a better sense of smell than men, which may have evolved to help them identify and bond with their new born. Interestingly it is also the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb and goes on to become the most developed in a child through to the age of around 10 when sight takes over. This is one of the reasons that childhood memories appear almost instantly when a smell from your past wafts into your unconscious, think candy floss, bubble gum or newly sharpened pencils. Your sense of smell is so strong it has an impact on how we experience taste, accounting for as much as 80%, try holding your nose and tasting something by way of an experiment. Although there is some debate about the actual percentage, all are agreed that smell and taste are connected.
The Proust Effect
The Proust effect refers to the power of smell and taste to evoke memories and emotions. Marcel Proust the famous French writer finds that his childhood memories come flooding back after tasting the tea-soaked crumbs of a madeleine (A French cake).
“… I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”
This was not a conscious process it resulted in an “involuntary memory” a term Proust created but is now widely used to describe this phenomenon.
Why is smell so powerful?
Smell and memory are so closely linked because of the brain’s anatomy. They are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, these are the regions related to emotion and memory.
Smells, sleep and studying
Memory can be thought of as a process of encoding, consolidation and recall, anything that improves the encoding or consolidation will aid recall. It was therefore of some interest when Franziska Neumann & Jürgen Kornmeier from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Freiburg Medical Center published a paper that concluded, if we smell an aroma while we take on new knowledge and then sleep next to a source of that same odor, we will find it easier to recall the information at a later date. What they effectively did was link the encoding process with a smell, in this instance rose-scented incense sticks which was on their desks while learning English vocabulary with consolidation by having the same rose scented smell on their bedside table when sleeping.
What they found was “students showed a significant increase in learning success by about 30% if the incense sticks were used during both the learning and sleeping phases”. Franziska Neumann.
However, the overall message is not to replicate this in your own studies, it’s very early days and the study was relatively small, although part of me thinks why not! What we can take away is that smells are incredibly powerful and play an important part in memory consolidation, and you should be aware of this when studying. It’s another technique in the memory toolkit, along with mind maps, mnemonics, effective note taking etc.
It has always been a frustration for me that we have not been able to harness the memory enhancing qualities of smell, incorporating them into the general learning process, and that’s partly the reason I have not written at length about this topic before. That said there has been some interesting research around using smells to enhance the learning environment in terms of both memory and mood.
In 2003, psychologist Mark Moss, at Northumbria University, carried out a range of cognitive tests using lavender which is associated with relaxation, and rosemary, linked to enhanced memory. The results showed that students who were subjected to the lavender aroma preformed significantly worse in working memory tests but those in the rosemary group did much better than the controls.
And this is something you can replicate, when learning why not experiment with some of these in your study room.
- Citrus – increases energy levels, improve your mood and to some extent concentration
- Peppermint – improves concentration and helps reduce anxiety
- Lavender – slows the heart rate and calms the nervous system
- Rosemary – improves retention, clarity and alertness
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…