Odor academics: Using fragrance sticks during sleep & study improves learning

FREIBURG, Germany — Learning and truly retaining new skills, such as a foreign language, is often easier said than done. If you’ve been on the lookout for a new way to get a leg up on your own learning goals, a group of German researchers have devised a refreshingly novel, yet also simple strategy that is showing serious promise: employing sweet-smelling fragrances to help train the brain.

Researchers found that using a fragrance while learning, and then again while sleeping, increased the learning success and efficiency of a group of German students learning the English language.

This isn’t the first time that scientists have concluded that smells can aid in learning, but never has an observable learning advantage been achieved quite so easily. A total of 54 sixth grade students were taught English vocabulary words, both with and without rose-scented fragrance sticks present while learning and sleeping. The students remembered their assigned English vocabulary words much more often when they had been learning and sleeping with the rose scent.

“We were able to show that the supportive effect of fragrances works very reliably in everyday life and can be used in a targeted manner,” says study leader PD Dr. Jürgen Kornmeier, head of the Perception and Cognition research group at the Freiburg IGPP, and a scientist at the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Medical Center Freiburg, in a statement.

The students were told to place the fragrance sticks on their desk at home while studying English, and then again by their bed as they went to sleep at night. The next day, they were given an exam testing their knowledge of the words they had been studying. The results of those tests were then compared to another group of students who had been taught the same information within the same timeframe without any scented sticks.

“The pupils showed a significantly greater learning success when the fragrance sticks were used both during the learning and the sleeping phase,” says first study author Franziska Neumann.

In an additional experiment, a group of students who had been smelling the rose scent while studying and sleeping were also given the same scent sticks on their desk as they took the English exam. Sure enough, the students performed even better on the test after smelling the scent of rose once again.

“It was particularly impressive that the scent also works when it is present all night,” Dr. Kornmeier comments. “This makes the findings suitable for everyday use.”

Prior studies had always surmised that a particular smell could only facilitate learning during sensitive sleep phases. This research, though, indicates that smelling a scent all night long can be very helpful as well.

“Our study shows that we can make learning easier while we sleep. And who would have thought that our nose could help a lot,” Dr. Kornmeier concludes.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.