Have you ever been out on a walk and suddenly you smelled something that affected you very strongly?
I’m not talking about allergies, but about an aroma that triggered something emotional in you—a memory of a long forgotten childhood event or an intensely detailed image. This is sometimes known as the “Proust Effect,” referring to the author Marcel Proust who wrote about memory recall as having a strong unconscious connection to certain smells. It's why some people find it useful to use essential oils for studying (more on this later).
The connection between smell and memory happens to be a very physical one. The olfactory bulb in the brain is only two neuronal synapses removed from the amygdala (an area of the brain implicated in emotional memory), and three synapses away from the hippocampus (our brain’s short-term memory powerhouse). This nearness links the emotional brain to the smell receptors more closely than to any other sense.
Can smells help you learn better?
Can this effect be harnessed? Can we use smell in other ways, for example, to help us study? If smells can take us back to various memories, can they help us remember facts?
That would require somehow associating smell with the content you want to remember. Imagine if smelling chocolate cake made you remember reading the US Constitution in such detail that you could recall every word of it perfectly. That would be fantastic! However, according to the studies of the aforementioned “Proust Effect,” this phenomenon is entirely unconscious.
Perhaps smelling an odor will not give us photographic memory or take us to page 334, section 2.3, line 5 of our history textbook. However, smells could be used to recall contexts or in particular, to enhance our memory recall. For example, if in a Biology class you were preparing for a test on pig dissection, perhaps remembering the smell of formaldehyde would enhance your memory of what the pig’s dissected body looked like. Perhaps when studying you could use different scented perfumes for different concepts so that you could remember them.
This is similar to how people win memory contests; they have trained their brains to be more efficient. Perhaps in the same way, you can train your brain to consciously recall facts based off of smell. It may be a great supplement for studying with Brainscape.
The best essential oils for studying
In addition to just memory triggers, are there certain smells that simply improve mental acuity by their nature? Like essential oils for studying? Well, the jury is still out.
Essential oils have been used as natural aid for centuries to boost cognitive performance—it even got its own name: aromatherapy. Some research has found that some essential oils can have significant mood and cognition boosting effects. Other research demonstrates that essential oils can be effectively used for stimulation, relaxation, and a mood boost; all things that can help you study better.
Still, in many cases, the research is not yet mature enough to be confident in their effects. Much of the research on aromatherapy is actually coupled with massage as well, which makes the findings about the essential oils difficult to interpret.
So much more research is needed to be sure about the effect of essential oils for studying and memory. They might help, but most scientists are so sure that they're willing to state it confidently. But why not give it a try? Here are some essential oils that you could use during your next study session:
Remember: although smells have shown to help us remember information associated to that smell, these methods are definitely not powerful enough to rely on as a study aid on its own. The best way to perform well on an exam is to develop solid study habits and use effective study methods.
Want more? Become inspired by our guide on how to optimize the brain and body to improve your learning!
Ayaz, M., Sadiq, A., Junaid, M., Ullah, F., Subhan, F., & Ahmed, J. (2017). Neuroprotective and anti-aging potentials of essential oils from aromatic and medicinal plants. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 9, 168. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00168
Cooke, B., & Ernst, E. (2000). Aromatherapy: a systematic review. British Journal of General Practice, 50(455), 493-496. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1313734/
Dobetsberger, C., & Buchbauer, G. (2011). Actions of essential oils on the central nervous system: An updated review. Flavour and Fragrance Journal, 26(5), 300-316. https://doi.org/10.1002/ffj.2045
Moss, M., Cook, J., Wesnes, K., & Duckett, P. (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. International Journal of Neuroscience, 113(1), 15-38. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207450390161903