This morning it happened again: I couldn’t remember where I put my car keys. Especially when I just had them five minutes earlier. Perhaps a recent study holds the key to my memory – or lack of – which seems to be looking more and more like a piece of Swiss cheese.
When it comes to improving your memory – everything is coming up roses. That’s the word from researchers who — after a promising bit of experimentation — demonstrated that the scent of a rose can reinforce memory.
According to a report in the Science Journal (www.sciencemag.com) taking a whiff of rose scent while learning a task and then being exposed to the same smell during sleep helps memories to set. This is just what the doctor ordered as far as I’m concerned. Upon closer examination it’s not so much the fragrance of roses that sets off an improved memory but the use of any type of fragrance if used correctly.
Jan Born of the University of Lübeck (www.uni-luebeck.de) and his colleagues exposed people to the smell of roses one evening while they learned the locations of various picture cards laid in a square. Half of them were then given the same odor to smell as they slept, while the other half had an odor-free night. When they were tested the next day, those who’d had a rosy sleep remembered 97% of the locations — without the roses this figure was 86%. Doesn’t seem like much, but it’s just enough of a difference to add credibility to the study.
According to follow-up article in Nature.com (www.nature.com), researchers think that a part of the brain called the hippocampus is like the scratch-pad of memory, where we put new things that have been experienced or learned until they can be filed for long-term storage. During sleep, these memories are ‘reactivated’ and transferred to the cortex.
Odors are known to have a potent effect on the hippocampus — which for those of you not in the know — not only kind of resembles a seahorse, but is also responsible for encoding long-term memories and helping with spatial navigation. The hippocampus is known to be associated with the consolidation of episodic memories (which are memories of personally experienced events and their associated emotions). The speculation was that an odor “conditioning” could thus help to trigger the ‘reactivation’ process during sleep, making permanent memory storage more efficient. The tests carried out at U of L support this theory.
Worth mentioning however — points out the Washington Post (www.wtop.com) — is that this memory enhancement technique depends on a specific sequence of events. Simply sleeping in a rose-scented room won’t necessarily do the trick, because the timing of odor exposure is crucial.
According to the Science article, volunteers in the study had to be exposed during so-called slow-wave sleep, when the hippocampus is triggered into replaying memories. Passing roses under the nose during lighter, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when most dreams occur, had no effect on memory.
So for example, it’s not enough for cramming college students to take a few good whiffs of a rose before going to bed and them magically recalling all the trigonometry they were studying the night before.
Taking a whiff of rose scent while learning a task and then being exposed to the same smell during sleep helps memories to set. Doctors have long advised that a good night’s sleep is important for memory, but researchers now say a familiar scent wafting in the bedroom might help sometimes, too.
That scent and memory can be intertwined has long fascinated scientists. I’m sure we’ve all experience this type of thing: you get a nostril full of a particular odor and suddenly you flash back to a strong emotional memory — for example eating corned beef at Boy’s Town or gorging a slice of apple pie at your grandma’s house or whatever.
I’m tempted to start sleeping with a bit of rose fragrance wafting in the room at night. It certainly can’t hurt. And who knows – maybe the next morning I’ll remember where those darn car keys are hiding.