Nose knows: The power of smell

How mixing smelling and studying can help your grade

Some people study with flashcards, while others prefer to study by reading their notes aloud. Study groups are popular on college campuses and a lot of people seek the help of tutors. Many students are hands on, and learn by doing an activity or experiencing what the textbook is attempting to explain.

Visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners all have different methods, but people often neglect another very important and helpful sense that is available to them—smell.

George Cox, a director of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy and professor of aromatherapy at Cincinnati State, strongly believes in the power of smell — not only to heal, but also as a memory tool.

“Our sense of smell is very powerful,” Cox said. “Your sense of smell is very powerfully associated with memory. If it’s something you like, you have a positive response. If it’s an unpleasant memory, you’ll have a negative response.”

Because the olfactory region, the part of the brain that detects smells, also governs an individual’s emotions, a person’s mood and sense of smell are linked instantaneously. Each individual ties different smells to different people, places or events. For example, many tie the smell of peppermint to Christmas time, or some may think of their grandma’s house when smelling baked goods. Strong smells provoke strong memories and emotions.

According to the Sense of Smell Institute, an organization that seeks to call attention to the importance of smell in everyday life, people recall smells with higher accuracy after a year than they will recall photos after only three months.

“Our odor memories frequently have strong emotional qualities and are associated with the good or bad experiences in which they occurred. Therefore, we often find that we can immediately recognize and respond to smells from childhood. Very often, we cannot put a name to these odors, yet they have a strong emotive association,” the Sense of Smell website stated.

Cox points out a recent research study that was done by advanced physiology students at a graduate school in which two groups were given a test. One group was given drops of rosemary and lemon to inhale while they were studying, while the other group was given nothing. According to Cox, the grades of the group who smelled the rosemary and lemon went up seven percent.

“That’s almost a letter grade. That’s not too bad for just inhaling something when you’re taking a test,” Cox said.

Lemon, rosemary and peppermint are all smells that can help enhance concentration. The scents help refresh the mind and boost energy. Rosemary has also been shown to help clear the mind. According to an article by ABC news, the smell of basil can also help improve concentration and memory.

Citrusy scents, such as lemon and orange, can help eliminate anxiety and increase concentration.

Taking a whiff of cinnamon is a powerful and simple way to enhance multiple brain functions, including visual-motor speed, recognition and focus. In addition, this household spice can help calm, as well as fight, fatigue.

While going to the local grocery store and picking up some lemons, basil and cinnamon to help keep focused during the next big study session is a good idea, those seriously wanting to tap into the power of scents should consider buying essential oils. According to Cox, any fragrance in its essential oil version is much more effective and potent. Stores such as 21 Drops and Sabon offer exclusive lines of essential and aromatic oils, including vanilla, lavender and special blends that promise to invigorate and de-stress.


  • Thank you very much for this information. This is very interesting and I will have to try this sometime.

  • The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example.

  • Scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain’s smell center, known as the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which might explain why the smell of something can so immediately trigger a detailed memory or even intense emotion.

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