Can Aromatherapy Improve Memory? I Sniffed Rosemary for 2 Weeks to Find Out

Photo: Getty Images/Blend Images Mark Edward AtkinsonTracey Lee
They say that you're never too old to learn...and, simultaneously, that it's pretty tough to become fluent in a language if you start learning after the age of 10. Yet here I am at 28, studying French ahead of a Parisian vacation. I say "studying" with reservation, though; my friend's currently taking Italian classes, and I've simply downloaded the Duolingo app so a bear wearing a scarf can teach me how to say, "This is Marc's daughter." While I  do have a solid grasp on the English language, when it comes to French? Je stink.

And so I decided to try odor cueing to help me learn. That term may sound bizarre—always be wary of any use of the word "odor"—but it's simply the technique of using certain scents as a way of embedding memory. For example, one recent study published in Scientific Reports used odor cues to promote effortless learning in sixth-graders while they slept and studied. Different test groups used a whiff of rose incense while studying and sleeping, and ultimately, more cueing produced stronger results.

These finding piqued my curiosity as to whether aromatherapy, could then, help me remember when to use bonjour versus bonsoir and bonne nuit. What I needed to find out first was a signature scent that would encourage my cognitive skills, and quickly I learned that using rosemary for memory recall is totally a thing.

"Since aroma and memory are so inextricably linked—they are found in the same areas of the limbic brain—there is enough evidence showing how rosemary can indeed improve memory." —Amy Galper, aromatherapist

As far as herbs go, sage, melissa, and black pepper have all been found to help with brain function, to a degree. The most research around cognitive function and memory, however, is around rosemary—but there's a catch: "Bear in mind that most of these studies are done on animals, and using only partial components of the plants," Amy Galper, aromatherapist and co-founder of the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies. "But I think it can be safe to say that since aroma and memory are so inextricably linked—they are found in the same areas of the limbic brain—there is enough evidence showing how rosemary can indeed improve memory."

That assertion proved strong enough evidence for me to try using rosemary for memory recall. Here's what happened during my two-week experiment with odor cueing.

Here’s what happened when I used the odor cue of rosemary for memory recall

For starters, odor cueing definitely kept me from ghosting my Duolingo-led French lessons. I would diffuse or sniff some rosemary essential oil as I brushed up on my skills. Then, I'd keep the diffuser going. I quickly noticed that while practicing, I could recall certain phrases quicker and quicker. The more I used rosemary for memory, the more seamless my lesson, so I'm at the very least convinced that the rosemary scent boosted my short-term memory.

Furthermore, when my friend Andrea recently baked rosemary bread for a small dinner party, and I enjoyed the wafting aroma from the oven, a Duolingo phrase pull up in my mind: "Tu es un cheval?" or "Are you a horse?" That may not be very useful when I’m making casual conversation on the streets of Montemarte, but it's not nothing.

Ultimately, at the end of my two-week experiment, I wouldn't say I experienced a personal French Revolution. But I did study more and study better. I don't believe I'm more poised to be fluent in French than I was two weeks ago, but since odor is the sense most directly tied to memory, it can’t hurt to have a signature scent in the air when you’re trying to learn something new. In this case though, rosemary was likely a placebo that helped me commit myself to a ritual, which in turn led my studies to sink in a little better. The habit made me much more accountable to buckling down and spending time with the app, and it’s irrefutable that repetition is helpful when it comes to memorization.

Odor cueing may not be a technique that’ll turn me into a modern-day Brigitte Bardot, but perhaps I'll be able to use my French skills in Paris anyway—even if just to ask if someone is a horse. At the very least, I now know for sure that I love when my apartment smell like freshly baked bread. Très bon.

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