If you have researched or used faster learning strategies before, you may have noticed that many of them involve sight, sound, and touch.
For example, visual learners transform text into mental images in their mind, which neuroscience shows is a much faster way to recall anything.
Auditory learners recall information they’ve heard, and prefer to learn through listening i.e. via a podcast, in a conversation, etc.
Kinesthetic learners are hands-on. They learn best by directly interacting with their environments, taking things apart, and putting them back together or acting out what they’ve learned.
So you can see how the senses play a part in learning – seeing, hearing, and touching can all enhance learning if used properly. Keep reading and I’ll reveal 7 of the best brain-boosting scents for you!
But What About Smell? Can Fragrance Improve Your Brain?
Is it possible to smell your way to a smarter brain?
As a matter of fact, neuroscientists and brain research says yes – it is!
How Do Scents Affect the Brain?
You may have heard of or even tried aromatherapy to try and relax, clear your mind.
But the benefits of pleasing scents go far beyond just helping you unwind.
First of all, ask yourself – how can scents physically impact me so that I feel relaxed?
Why can some scents make me feel a certain way or influence my mood?
The scientific explanation for this lies in the way the brain processes smell.
When you detect a fragrance or odor, the olfactory network in our brains is active and decodes the molecules that make up that smell.
Within these networks, which includes the limbic system, you have your amygdala and hippocampus.
Both of these play a critical role in emotional responses, learning, and memory.
So, encountering specific scents and smells activates these parts of the brain.
Neuroscientists have used imaging technology to see how the limbic system reacts to smells, so this is a science-backed, physical effect.
Currently, literature suggests that there are two types of memory associated with smells.
One is personal event memories – scents that your brain associates to something you have experienced before.
For example, the smell of a bakery, your grandma’s kitchen, your favorite fabric softener – and so on.
And second, there are contextual memories, which connects a scent to specific knowledge.
So, a specific burnt smell lets you know something has been left on the stove or oven too long.
A particular odor might mean something is spoiling in the fridge.
And so on.
How Does This Relate to Learning and Memory?
You might be thinking that despite the exciting effect smells can have on the brain, it can’t play that big a role in learning and memory, right?
But neuroscience suggests otherwise.
Research finds that a decline of smell recognition is an early sign of dementia for example. If you have concerns about this, try it out. Researchers have discovered that people who did blind scent tests, and could not detect the smell of peanut butter, may be at a greater risk for dementia.
Smell training, involving exposure to a range of smells and noting things like their characteristics and intensity, enhances not just the identification of scents but also other cognitive abilities.
Neuroscientists attribute this to the brain’s neuroplasticity.
The brain is highly adaptable and malleable to new knowledge and experiences.
When it comes into contact with new or repeated stimuli, it builds, maintains, and strengthens new neural connections in the brain.
Very simply explained, not only does the development and strengthening of new neural connections improve your memory of something, but it also improves other cognitive functions.
Older individuals who took part in smell training activities showed not only an improvement in detecting and distinguishing scents but also improved cognitive abilities like verbal fluency.
The Science-Backed Effects of Aromatherapy
Let’s bring the discussion back to aromatherapy, now that you know how scents can affect and enhance the functioning of the brain.
Essential oils are the naturally occurring fragrance bases of flowers, fruits, leaves, and so on.
Extracted, they are a concentrated dose of pleasant scent and, based on multiple scientific studies, brain and mood enhancers.
Some of them also have excellent antiseptic benefits and can kill flu-causing germs even in a diluted form.
You might have read or heard a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
It isn’t just a pretty quote.
Studies find that rosemary essential oils can help enhance memory, focus, and accuracy of learning.
Other memory- and attention-enhancing essential oils include lavender and peppermint.
Positive results found across several studies show how they make learners faster and more accurate.
Certain scents also give you a mood boost, which can help to get you going and be more alert – citrusy essential oils like orange and lemon, and mint and bergamot, for example.
Essential oils are also popular sleeping aids – scents like lavender and chamomile can help you relax enough to drift off.
Sleep is a critical part of memory consolidation since this is the time that the hippocampus and other parts of the brain are actively reviewing what you’ve learned through the day and storing it.
So, to answer the question “is it possible to smell your way to a smarter brain” –
Yes, it is absolutely possible.
How to Incorporate Scents into Your Learning Process
I’m not telling you to commit yourself to smell training, which can be intensive and time-consuming.
But given the neuroscience-backed benefits, incorporating scents into your learning process can aid your learning and memory, which is always a great thing.
7 Science-Backed Scents That Improve Your Brain and Memory
There are numerous studies on fragrance and the affect it can have on your brain, cognitive function and memory.
Here are 7 scents that help improve your brain, memory and attentiveness. Of course there are many more, but these are some of my personal favorites!
PRECAUTIONS: Make sure you read the cautions and warnings that may accompany an essential oil – for example, rosemary can slow an infant’s breathing too much, so you don’t want this in a diffuser near a baby or young child. Also, if you’re pregnant always check with your doctor because certain essential oils can have adverse affects. So, be sure to check with your health care provider before using any fragrances or essential oils – just to be safe!
1. Peppermint – this is known to boost attentiveness. So if you feel your mind is wandering, take a quick sniff of high quality peppermint essential oil. (see the important section below for what high quality means).
2. Rosemary is well researched and there are several published studies showing just how much this scent improves your brain, memory, concentration, speed, performance and accuracy.
I have fresh rosemary inside my home, and whenever I feel I need a bit of a brain boost, I simply smell it and instantly feel better!
And, because rosemary contains carnosic acid, it can fight off free radicals in the brain. It may also helpful for people who have had a stroke, and is protective against certain types of brain damage, so it might help improve recovery.
CAUTION WITH ROSEMARY: If you have infants or very young children in your home, this is not the fragrance you want them exposed to. It can slow down an infant’s breathing.
3. Cinnamon. Wow! This wonderful fragrance helps fight off that 3 pm mental fatigue that people often get. Just keep a fresh, organic jar of cinnamon with your spices (do make sure it’s fresh though) and try inhaling this well-known favorite cinnamon scent if you’re feeling a little sluggish.
4. Citrus. Ever make typos? As an author, I certainly have and did you know that a Japanese study showed that typos were increased by 50% simply by inhaling some fresh lemon essential oil. (No this does not mean that you’ll never make typos again – but it is a wonderful fragrance.)
Lemon has been highly researched and has memory and many other brain benefits.
And that’s not all – other citrus scents like orange can reduce anxiety, and grapefruit can help fight fatigue.
5. Chamomile. If you have trouble relaxing and falling asleep – try some chamomile fragrance in the evening. During sleep, our brains stay active and help process new learning and encode it into long term memory. So do yourself favor and use fragrance to help you get those zzzz that your body and brain need so much!
6. Sage. Ever heard that the word “sage” means wise? Well it turns out that sage oil, according to studies on 18-37 year olds, shows that sage improves memory. People performed better on word tests after taking sage oil capsules.
7. Basil. This is well-known to help reduce stress and improve memory.
Not All Essential Oils Are Create Equal So Use Only the Highest Quality
Oils extracted using steam, water, cold-pressing, or maceration are high-quality and natural.
Those chemically extracted will have other ingredients mixed in, reducing their potency and effectiveness and can even cause damage. So while the best essential oils cost a little more, it’s well worth it in the long run.
Some oils can go directly on your skin in lieu of perfume or cologne, some you can ingest, and some you can inhale.
Before committing to any, it’s best to research which oils you can use in which ways.
When you are studying or at work, inhaling essential oils seems to be the most practical.
In that case, it’s better to choose a cold diffusion device.
These don’t use heat to mist up the oils since heat can alter the molecular structure of the scents and prevent their effectiveness.
Ultrasonic diffusers use water and a few drops of essential oil to work up a fine mist sprayed periodically through the room.
If the diffuser is big enough, it can also serve as a humidifier.
There are also nebulizers, which are the more expensive option since they work pure essential oil into a mist and diffuse this into the air.
You’d be going through a lot more essential oil and paying more to get a nebulizer.
But if you’re going for a full aromatherapy experience akin to a spa, this is the device to get.
Other alternatives include scented candles – soy-based ones, as paraffin candles are polluting, and of course, the source material themselves.
You can brighten up your home and workplace with fresh sprigs of lavender, start the morning with some oranges or clementines, and keep fresh rosemary in your kitchen.
If you’ve sniffed at some fresh flowers and felt your day brighten or felt better after peeling an orange, now you know why.
Many naturally-occurring scents, captured in concentrated form in essential oils, can help enhance your focus, alertness, memory, and learning processes.
So, are you going to smell your way to a smarter brain too?
I’d love to hear how you’re going to including scents in your learning process!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.
Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!