Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Smell of Success

In recent issues, I've talked about the effects that different scents have on sexuality, family relations and weight loss. With the power of smell being so important in the animal world, it was not so surprising when Alan R. Hirsch, MD, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago and author of Life's a Smelling Success told me that scent can even have a positive influence on learning. In a study conducted by Dr. Hirsch's foundation, researchers recruited 22 volunteers at a Chicago mall and asked them to take a series of tests wearing scented and unscented masks. The tests were essentially connect-the-dot, trail-making puzzles, standard memory exercises that are paradigms for real-life learning tasks, such as spatial analysis, motor control, attention shifting, alertness, concentration and number sense. Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues found that a mixed floral scent caused a significant improvement in learning. People who had a normal sense of smell and enjoyed the floral scent learned to complete the test 17% faster on average in subsequent trials when the odor was present. While researchers do not know exactly why a floral scent improves test-taking abilities, Dr. Hirsch speculates that it may reduce anxiety or induce a positive feeling that improves cognition. Interestingly, other scents did not have a similar impact on learning. According to Dr. Hirsch, this study points to the possibility that a floral scent may help improve learning in people who have suffered a stroke or head trauma or who have learning disabilities or dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. It also might play some role in general education, although Dr. Hirsch notes that real-life classrooms are so filled with distractions and sensory stimuli that they would dim an odor's subtler impact. Further studies are necessary to determine whether any of these applications are practical. In the meantime, it can't hurt -- and it might help -- to light a floral-scented candle when you turn on your computer or open a book.

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