Science: Revealed: the sweet smell of girls' success at exams

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Success in exams may be something to be sniffed at after all.

Psychologists have discovered that smell-association is a powerful aid to memory for students, particularly among those who are anxious or apprehensive.

The researchers found that students exposed to various unusual background smells while trying to absorb large chunks of text or data, were able to remember much more when exposed to the same smell at the time of recall. When compared to the performance of students who had not been exposed to such smells, the volunteers were able to recall almost 20 per cent more of the text they had tried to remember.

The research of Dr Rachel Herz, reported in The Psychologist this week, opens up a whole new area of opportunity for students. The aromas of peppermint, violet leaf and pine were used in the experiment, but Dr Herz of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia says that smell-association will only work as a memory aid if the odour is either unusual, like a new perfume, or out of context, like chocolate in a laboratory.

"Sure it will work, but only if it is new and unusual. Go to a perfume department, pick out something you have never smelt before, put it on the desk while you are studying for your test, and then bring it in with you a few days later when you are doing the test and it will work," she said.

In a series of studies, Dr Herz set up experiments in which words were read or recalled in the presence or absence of a smell. "The subjects were taken to a room with an ambient odour and they learnt a series of words. They were then brought back to another room a few days or a week later and some were exposed to the same odour and some not. What we found was that memory is significantly affected by the specific odour," she said.