Can certain smells and aromas improve learning efficiency?

Modified on by sruthi

Can certain smells and aromas improve learning efficiency?

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 a 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.

The connection between smell and memory happens to be a directly 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.

In principle, using smells to study is simply the association of the smell with a fact, concept, or idea. This presents an interesting possibility in terms of challenging and manipulating the brain hardware that we were born with. 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.

If anyone tries it, let us know!

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .


Bobert Johanson 6 years ago

I am doing something of this sort for my Science Fair project. I am going to give a class something to remember in a room with a certain aroma in it, and have them recite what I make them memorize in the end of the class.

Brainscape Info 6 years ago

Hi Bobert,

Wow! That sounds like a great Science Project! Be sure to check back in and let us know how it goes! What an interesting topic. Good luck with your experimenting!


Randi Skelton


TK123 6 years ago

Well, how is your Science Fair going?

Carlos A 5 years ago

So how did it go?

Andrew Cohen 8 years ago

This sounds like the concept of "state-dependent memory", which is similar to the theory that states if you learn something while, say, high on marijuana, you are more likely to remember it if you are high on marijuana again, etc.

I'd love to know if there is any research showing that there are actual chemicals that, when inhaled, can make your brain encode memories more efficiently.

Amanda Moritz 8 years ago

erm, I was thinking more like, I smelled orange zest while memorizing the periodic table, so if I'm being tested on identifying elements I should bring along an orange.

Guest 8 years ago

I think cologne or perfume abide to the "Prouse Effect." When you consistently smell one's scent the persons smell will remind you of certain charecteristics or memories with that person. For example, I had a history teacher who always wore this summary-apple scent. When i smell a similar scent to this my mind is manipulated back to the classroom with connotatoins such as "The Six Day War." 

Renee Seats 8 years ago

@granolamom4 god Saw this & thought I'd share

Another tired Nursing student 6 years ago

Call it superstitious but I have often used a similar technique when studying for an exam. When studying I will make myself an esspresso or good and fragrant Earl Grey tea. I have it with me and sip it while studying. The next day when I have my exam, I will make the same beverage to take with me. I will sip it and smell it during my exam. While I would not claim total recall or photographic memory, it certainly puts me back into the same state of mind that I was calmly engaging the information previously. It also had the added bonuse of the caffeine too.

Tori Hale 4 years ago

my grandfather had a stroke last year and is having trouble with memorizing things he has read, I thought that I could connect smells with short stories that he has read. I don't know if it will work but I hope it does so I can work with others on the same problem.

Bryan Stellfox 3 years ago

I actually used this technique while studying for Anatomy and Physiology 2 last semester. I realized that all senses are processed through the thalamus, except for scent. Scent is processed directly through the basolateral amygdala. This means that certain scents could spark fight or flight, thus being a strong reaction leading to the association of memory. For one test, I used Vicks vapor rub. I smelled the bottle every few minutes while studying, then brought it to class to sniff during the class. I got an A on the test. I then tried to find different scents that would create a stronger reaction. For the next test, I utilized pure ammonia aka smelling salts. My logic was that ammonia would have the stronest reaction, due to the instinctual process of our ancestors. Urine was a useful scent in prehistoric times, to know when you were walking into another animal's territory...thus pure ammonia would create a very strong reaction. When I used this for studying during finals week, the reaction was perfect, and I honestly remembered better, concentration was improved, and creativity increased. I plan on using this for my thesis.

comments powered by Disqus