Cognitive Fitness Chapter 14 – Scent – What’s that Smell?

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. Recent blogs have considered environmental factors as we build up a picture of what goes on in the office that stimulates your cognition. This time we consider the effect of scent on our brains!

We know from our cognitive performance research that certain scents can affect our physical, emotional and mental health. So how does this happen? Our smell receptor enables what we smell to travel to the brain regions including limbic and medial temporal lobe structures where emotions and memories are stored.

When studying the effect of essential oils, some researchers believe that they stimulate chemical reactions within the body and the brain.

What scents have an impact on cognitive performance?

Some aromas can relax or even sedate us (i.e. lavender and chamomile), while others can stimulate or excite (i.e. rosemary and peppermint) – through these chemical processes.

Research has shown that peppermint leads to greater alertness, decreased frustration and reduced anxiety and fatigue under controlled conditions. Lavender by contrast produced a significant reduction in working memory and reduced reaction times in tasks requiring memory and attention as you might expect with a fragrance that is relaxing.

If you think about particular fragrances and smells, you will probably also realise that they can be strongly linked to situations or places – aiding our recall of specific times or events – sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not so pleasant.

Here is a quick guide to the beneficial effects of particular scents:


cognitive performance - smell - awa - advanced workplace associates - mental performance


Scent in the workplace

While aromas can be powerful in terms of their effects (either positive or negative), clearly “smell” can often be a touchy subject. Aromas from the restaurant that reach the working areas are often a source of distraction and irritation to staff. Similarly, colleagues eating strong smelling food at their desks are another ongoing source of tension in many offices.

Added to those aspects are a whole range of issues relating to sensitivity to and aversion to the smells emanating from colleagues; (i.e. perfume, after shave, fabric softeners, body odour, bad breath etc.) disinfectant and cleaning products used by the office cleaners; and any smells that make their way into the building from the outside world!
However, with care and consideration for personal preferences there are some things to think about.

cognitive performance - smell - awa - advanced workplace associates - mental performance

So what can you do?

If this is interesting, see what works for you and your cognitive performance. Here are some ideas:

  1. Buy an essential oil roll-on applicator in rosemary or peppermint and apply directly to pulse points (temples and wrists) to give you energy and invigorate you
  2. Have an orange and leave the peel on your desk for a while so you can smell it
  3. Get some essential oil, put a few drops on a tissue and tuck it into your pocket (much like you would do when you have a cold and want to use something to help you breathe)
  4. Try sleeping with a lavender sachet under your pillow
  5. Burn some oil in a diffuser before you go to bed to help you relax
  6. If you look after the workplace, maybe make essential oil fragrances available in particular spaces to create a more balanced workplace experience. This will help to create the right ambiance and mood that is appropriate to the space. For example, in spaces designed for relaxation and de-stressing, you could consider introducing lavender or chamomile in appropriate strengths (you don’t want people to get sleepy after all!) along with cool colours.
  7. In areas where you want people to get a boost of energy and clarity (perhaps areas used for brainstorming or creativity), using or providing peppermint or rosemary to energise and invigorate could combine nicely with warm colours and stimulating furniture / fabric combinations.


Give your brain a great day – use fragrances that work to create the mood you need!

Next time we’ll look at the next environmental factor that came out of the research. As you can start to see, in order to foster a workers ideal cognitive performance level, there are numerous factors that require consideration. This is the 13th and final factor – cognitive memory training and mindfulness!


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