Can certain smells and sounds make us smarter?

Some research indicates that our sense of smell and hearing may impact cognition.

Remember the last time you prepared for a big test, a presentation or an interview? According to Michigan State University Extension, many of us have our own ways to get into top mental shape for such tasks. But how many of you indulged your olfactory by smelling rosemary or peppermint? Not many of you? Some research has suggested that our sense of smell may actually impact our cognitive ability, alertness and our moods. These are traits that could certainly be useful for boosting learning and grades in school. You can read the research abstracts published online. The summary is that being exposed to aromas such as peppermint and rosemary may help improve cognition and moods, particularly compared to other aromas like lavender and ylang-ylang. Can your nose and certain smells impact our learning? One should argue that more research is certainly needed to come to any sort of conclusion, however, the idea is certainly thought provoking.

This isn’t the first time that harnessing the senses has been linked to a potential boost in brain power. The sense of hearing has garnered greater interest leading to a little more research that has been investigating the potential positive and negative impacts certain sounds and music may have on our ability to learn and comprehend. Music, for example, has been found by some to improve alertness and cognitive ability. The phenomena have been labeled as the Mozart effect. The Mozart effect is a “set of research results indicating that listening to Mozart’s music may induce a short term improvement on the performance of certain kinds of mental tasks and that early childhood exposure to classical music has a beneficial effect on mental development.” To learn more about the Mozart effect you can watch this short, fun video from the BBC.

Contrary to the Mozart effect, some research like the RANCH study found some sounds including traffic noise can be distracting and have a negative impact on children’s memory and reading level. So is the take home message to surround our favorite studying area with sounds of Mozart and the aroma of peppermint while staying clear of airports and other people’s conversations? Not necessarily. More research is needed before any kind of conclusions can be made on the effects sound and smells may have on our alertness, cognitive ability or even moods. But it is perhaps helpful to understand that our environment likely has some impact on our ability to learn. This should also cause us to use our senses and take a closer look at where adults and our young people learn, study and work. For instance, I know I shouldn’t study next to a kitchen because the aromas that come through those doors will definitely distract me! It is also important to understand that just because listening to certain music or studying in a certain environment is comfortable for some people; it will not work for everyone. When learning, studying, writing or whatever it is you need to do that involves your brain; each person needs to find an environment that is comfortable for them that allows focus, learning and productivity. MSU Extension wishes you luck when harnessing your senses to optimize learning in 2014.

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