Have you ever been out on a walk and suddenly you smelled something that affected you very strongly? I’m not talking about allergies, but about an aroma that triggered something emotional in you, a memory of a long forgotten childhood event or a intensely detailed image. This effect is sometimes known as the “Proust Effect”, referring to the author Marcel Proust who wrote about memory recall as a strong unconscious reaction to a smell.

The connection between smell and memory happens to be a directly physical one. The olfactory bulb in the brain is only two neuronal synapses removed from the amygdala (an area of the brain implicated in emotional memory), and three synapses away from the hippocampus (our brain’s short-term memory powerhouse). This nearness links the emotional brain to the smell receptors more closely than to any other sense.

However can we use smell in other ways, say for example, to help us study? If smells can take us back to various memories, can they help us remember facts? That would require somehow associating smell with the content you want to remember. Imagine if smelling chocolate cake made you remember reading the US Constitution to such detail that you could recall every word of it perfectly. That would be fantastic! However, according to the workings of the aforementioned “Proust Effect” this phenomenon is entirely unconscious. So then is there a way to harness smell to help us study better?

Perhaps smelling an odor will not give us photographic memory or take us to page 334, section 2.3, line 5 of our history textbook. However, smells could be used to recall contexts or in particular, enhance our memory recall. For example, if in a Biology class you were preparing for a test on pig dissection, perhaps remembering the smell of formaldehyde would enhance your memory of what the pig’s dissected body looked like. Perhaps when studying you could use different scented perfumes for different concepts so that you could remember them.

In principle, using smells to study is simply the association of the smell with a fact. I think that it presents an interesting possibility in terms of challenging and manipulating the brain hardware that we were born with. In the same way that people win memory contests, they have trained their brains to be more efficient. Perhaps in the same way, you can train your brain to consciously recall facts based off of smell.

If anyone tries it, let me know!