Tip #64: Olfactory Engagement: Smell

The aroma of coffee. The scent of perfume or cologne. Stale stuffy air in a room without proper ventilation. The caustic chemical stink of cleaning solvents.
The whiff of cigarette smoke. The flavorful fragrance of cooking. The sharp stench of garbage.

Although an extreme odor will quickly get our attention, we are usually not very conscious of the impact that the sense of smell has on learning and retention.

My web research into this topic reaped a wide range of interesting information:

In an article in a recent U.S. News & World Report (February 28, 2005 ), Dolores Malaspina, M.D., M.S.P.H., of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, explains that the olfactory sense is the only one of our five senses that bypasses the thalamus and goes directly to the prefrontal cortex ø the center of cognitive thought ø and is therefore received by it with unfiltered intensity.

She says, “Beginning with fetal development [our brains] are laid out to give precedence to olfactory perception. What we are learning is that smell is a good window into the unconscious basis for sociability and social interest. There is a tremendous explosion of interest in this forgotten sense ø and it was under our noses all the time.”

Using modern brain-scanning methods, Morten Kringelbach has found out much about where the brain processes the different types of sensory input.

“It is highly interesting that the sense of smell is connected directly to the parts of the brain where emotions are processed. Nearly every other kind of sensory input passes through the thalamus, which is a kind of relay station in the mind, before the signal passes on to other parts of the brain where the actual interpretation takes place. This does not happen with olfactory input Ñ that goes straight to the emotional response centre,” he explains.

This direct access to the orbito-frontal cortex is one likely explanation of why smells can give rise to sudden and overwhelming emotions Ñ and of why we only become aware of smells after our emotional state has been changed by those emotions. No wonder potential home buyers are more likely to put an offer on a house that has cookies or an apple pie baking in the oven!

Smells can transport us through time and distance. Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell.” A whiff of a familiar perfume can bring back a flood of memories so vivid it brings tears of joy because of the direct physical route which exists between memory and smell.

Marcel Proust has lent his name to the phenomenon of memory recall in response to a specific smell (after his description of such an event in “Swan’s Way”) – the “Proust Effect.” Whole memories, complete with all associated emotions, can be prompted by smell. This is entirely unconscious and cannot necessarily be prompted voluntarily.

However, countless studies have shown that recall can be enhanced if learning is done in the presence of an odor and if that same odor is presented at the time of recall.

All we need to do to improve retention, then, might be to hand out fragrant scented markers to our participants and ask them to sniff them frequently throughout the course of the training. They should be instructed to take the markers with them when they leave, so they can uncap and sniff the markers whenever they need to remember what they learned ! Let me get back to you on something less cumbersome when it occurs to me.

Proponents of aromatherapy believe that the mere introduction of a scent can have a positive effect on the body, the emotions, or the intellect. Two interesting claims:

  • Calculus students were proven to increase their speed of learning by 230% with aromatherapy!
  • When lavender was infused into the air in an office, keyboard-punching errors fell by 20%, 33% with jasmine and 54% with lemon.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York has found that people in pleasantly scented rooms carry out their work with more confidence, more efficiency and greater willingness to resolve work place conflict.

The Japanese have been using essential oils in the work place for years. At one Japanese bank, lavender and rosemary are used in the customer area to relax and sedate, while the worker areas are infused with lemon and eucalyptus to keep workers alert.

I had heard that lemon was used to refresh and revitalize, so I purchased an aromatherapy lemon spray. A spritz in the afternoon or evening really does keep me more alert and effective when I’m training!

Peppermint is dispersed into offices and conference rooms to increase work efficiency, dispel drowsiness and lessen mental fatigue. The Tokyo stock exchange has peppermint diffused into the atmosphere every afternoon to make brokers feel invigorated and refreshed.

Imagine the gains in learning retention if we knew how to effectively incorporate the sense of smell into our learning environments!

This ends our exploration of ways to engage the senses. Next week, we will begin a discussion of strategies to engage or manage “difficult” participants. If you have any particular challenges you would like to have addressed, please let me know.

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