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Smell to Boost Learning Power

Only true die hards have read the novel 'A la recherche du temps perdu' by French writer Marcel Proust, but one particular scene from that book is famous: The main character dips a cake called a Madelaine into a cup of chamomile tea, which evokes a torrent of memories from a forgotten childhood. 

Marcel Proust understood intuitively what science would only discover many years later: There is no sense that reaches more deeply and suddenly into our emotional center - right into our solar plexus - than the sense of smell. 

So if smells can take us back to various memories, can they help us remember facts?  

Science has already proven that smell can influence our behavior. Like the scent of citrus that makes us want to clean more. Or Auping, a large bedding retailer, who spreads the smell of freshly washed linen through their shops because it increases sales. And what to think of the Dutch Tax Authorities? In their offices the smell of orange circulates every afternoon to help employees through their midday slump. 

The correct term for this phenomenon is Subliminal Persuasion, which simply means influencing people at a level below their conscious recognition. 

The birth of Subliminal Persuasion dates back to 1957 when a market researcher named James Vicary inserted the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie. 

The words appeared for a single frame, allegedly long enough for the subconscious to pick up, but too short for the viewer to be aware of it. The subliminal ads supposedly created an 18.1% increase in Coke sales and a 57.8% increase in popcorn sales.

What does all of this mean for boosting learning power? 

Less research has gone into the idea of whether scents can help with improving performance, but so far there have been intriguing findings. 

For example psychologist Mark Moss, carried out a range of cognitive tests on subjects who were exposed to rosemary aroma's during lectures. Those in the rosemary group, memorized the content significantly better than the control group. 

And although lavender is know for its sedative qualities, scientist Sakamato found that during recess periods after intense and long lectures, it can prevent deterioration performance in subsequent work sessions. 

There's been more research that suggests that smells can have an impact on learning, performance and creativity, so perhaps the use of scent in the classroom can no longer be brushed of as pseudoscience. And even though a lot of aroma therapy marketing is full of false claims, I do believe we should consider fragrance as a tool to create a psychological state of mind for ultimate transfer of learning. 

While more scientific evidence is in the making, why not give it a try? 

At the very least they will produce a more pleasant learning environment for workshop participants. 


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