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Aroma and memory.

Aroma and memory

It is a widely held belief that odors are potent reminders of past experience. People frequently report scenes, events and impressions precipitated by the whiff of a fleeting odor. Thus a musty odor may remind one of playing in grandparent's basement as a child on weekend visits. The smell of floor wax or chalk may bring to life memories associated with school years. Or the redolence of a fine fragrance may evoke fond memories of a past love. Perhaps the most famous anecdotal report of an odor-evoked memory is the recollection by Marcel Proust of his aunt's country home which returned to his awareness by the smell of a madeleine pastry soaked in tea."

This is the introduction to a recent report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition (1990, Vol. 16, No. 4,648-655) entitled "Odors and Remembrance of Things Past" by Frank R. Schab.

Working in the Psychology Department at Yale University, his dissertation presents laboratory evidence that a specific aroma like that of coffee, which is present while studying, could significantly improve memory performance if also present when the student is taking an examination on these same studies. These tests on significant groups, half experiencing the same odor both times and half not, produced 25 to 50% improvement in performance on typical psychological memory tests. Apparently, individuals under the influence of the same odor when learning and testing had greater recall than similar people not subject to the same aroma on both occasions. This could be of inestimable benefit, not only to high school and college students, but innumberable adults whose career in civil service, medicine, law, engineering and other professional fields depend on passing often incredibly difficult examinations. As well as to many office workers writing a report and attempting to recall significant factors.

Three separate experiments were described in the report. In the first a total of 72 Yale undergraduates (36 male, 36 female) participated in exchange for course credit. The odorant used was chocolate, disseminated into the atmosphere of a 35' x 11' laboratory chamber using an aroma disk diffuser.

The test consisted of 40 common English adjectives printed on a page; to the right of each was a blank line. Subjects participated in two experimental sessions, separated by 24 hours. First was a learning session during which subjects were asked to write the opposite of each word. The next day, they were given 10 minutes to complete an identical task. Most remembered less than half the words in their original answers. All were instructed to think chocolate at both sessions.

One fourth were in the chamber with the aroma at both sessions. One fourth had the aroma at the learning session, but not when testing; while an equal group inhaled the aroma upon testing but not while learning. The remaining quarter had no odor either time.

The group breathing the aroma at both sessions exhibited scores averaging 25% higher than the other three groups.

The second experiment was designed to demonstrate that odors did not detract from performance. Thirty subjects (18 men, 12 women) were utilized. Odor used was apple/cinnamon delivered by a similar diffuser. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three equal size experimental groups. One group learned and recalled while smelling the odor. A second group was instructed to think about and imagine the odor at both sessions. The third group had no odor or instructions to imagine it.

In this case both groups, who had no odor present, averaged almost identical results; while the grop experiencing the odor on learning and testing generated results 50% higher than the other two groups.

In the third experiment two different odors were used to determine whether pleasant or unpleasant aromas made any difference. Forty undergraduates (20 men, 20 women) participated. Two odors were employed: chocolate and moth balls. Chocolate was diffused as previously. A pound of moth balls spread on a carton, allowed passive diffusion into the atmosphere. Different size rooms were used for each odor. A different psychological memory test was utilized.

One fourth of the subjects learned and remembered while smelling chocolate; one fourth while smelling moth balls. The other two fractions were switched. One fourth learned smelling chocolate and remembered inhaling moth ball fumes; while the other quarter learned smelling moth balls and were memory tested in a chocolate environment.

The two groups operating under switched conditions exhibited practically identical and relatively low recall. The two sets inhaling the same aroma on both occasions also exhibited almost identical scores, which were well over 50% higher than the switched parties.

No sex differences were observed in any of these tests. The author concludes that a significant "memory benefit occurs in response to the presence of an ambient odor when the same odor is present at the time of learning and retrieval."

Memory is one of the most vital components of the human mind. It gives us the ability to store endless experiences, words, concepts, facts and faces; and to recall them on demand with speed and accuracy that often puts even the most sophisticated computer to shame. Memory is the key to defining our collective humanity and our individual personality. It gives us each a distinctive past, a key to who we are. Mnemonic aids for specific tasks have long been employed. A broad spectrum memory aid has even greater universal value.

Although coffee aroma was not utilized in any of these experiments, it is quite resonable to deduce that such aroma present at both learning and testing would display even greater efficiency in recall. Particularly if ingested on both occasions, the beverage could exhibit further enhancement from its caffeine effect. It has frequently been demonstrated that caffeine, as a cerebral stimulant, clarifies both memory and other mental processes. It would thus reinforce the memory effect. Further research to confirm the value of the synergistic of coffee aroma and its caffeine content on memory is well justified. Perhaps we may see the day when Mr. Coffee will be present in all examination rooms and the exam monitor will have the additional function of its service.
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Author:Lee, Samuel
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:column
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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