Can Smells Positively Impact Learning?

I love coffee... a lot. I love making coffee in my classroom, so much so that my middle school students regularly comment “It always smells like coffee in here!”

We all know smells affect us, sometimes eliciting a positive emotional response, sometimes disgust. Can smells be leveraged in the classroom to create a positive learning environment? If they can, then how can educators harness this odorific-power?

The Proust Effect may offer some insight. According to neuroscientists, the Proust Effect can be defined as memory traces or fragments are distributed throughout the brain as biophysical or biochemical changes called engrams. Basically, engrams are the coders of memory in our brains providing a physical basis for the persistence of memory... a memory trace.[1] Researchers found that a memory of a seemingly irrelevant detail, like in short-term memory, may accompany a long-term memory.[2] It appears smells are truly powerful!

Finding the perfect smell is not easy. For example, how does wintergreen make you feel? What does wintergreen remind you of? Research in the 1960s and 70s found that in Great Britain wintergreen was rated very low on the pleasantness scale but in the United States it was rated very high. Why the difference? In Great Britain wintergreen reminded people of hospitals since it was used with analgesics but in the United States wintergreen has been a relatively exclusive candy mint smell. In the quest to create the perfect stink bomb, militaries cannot even find a bad smell we all agree on.[3]

For smells/odor to elicit any sort of response in you, you have to first learn to associate it with some event. This explanation for how odors affect us is based on what is known as associative learning, the process by which one event or item comes to be linked to another because of an individual’s past experiences.[4] The behaviorist in me wonders if I can take a page from Pavlov's playbook and do some cons-Dog with my students?[5]

Apparently, I’m not the only one to investigate this concept. Smell-o-Vision and AromaRama[6] tried to bring an enhanced viewer experience to television and movie theatres by adding smell sometimes by using a special television set-top-box or through a theatres air conditioning system.

[7] [8]

Promising More than 100 different aromas will be injected into the theater during the film. With the glorious smells of grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches, horses, restaurants, the scent of a trapped tiger and many more. But alas first generation smelly-movies and smelly-tellies were poorly received and word of mouth gave the concept a bad wrap.[9],[10] I am not sure how I would feel about this kind of experience… I keep thinking about Les Miserables, I just don’t feel compelled to smell that.

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So how then do we best leverage the power of the nose? How do we include this scent as part of our instructional design? As part of our learning experiences? It turns out that like all instructional design, context is super important. Lessons from the stories of smells remind us that we must pay special attention to our learners and simply ask: What does this smell make you think of? Or: How does this smell make you feel? The end result may be that so many smells are received so differently that we cannot come to the best result[12], but it seems worth a shot.

My hope is that the smell of coffee reminds my students about learning in a positive place.


[1] "Engram | Define Engram at Dictionary.com." http://www.dictionary.com/browse/engram.

[2] "Neuroscientists explain 'Proustian effect' of small ... - ScienceDaily." 13 Jan. 2011, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110113131626.htm.

[3] "Do scents affect people's moods or work ... - Scientific American." https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-scents-affect-peoples/.

[4] "Do scents affect people's moods or work ... - Scientific American." https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-scents-affect-peoples/.

[5] "Pavlov's Dogs | Simply Psychology." https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html.

[6] "Smell-O-Vision - Wikipedia." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smell-O-Vision.

[7] "Coming soon to a nostril near you: Smell-o-vision is back | Digital Trends." 1 Apr. 2013, https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/smelling-screen-brings-the-smell-o-vision-back/.

[8] "AromaRama (1959) and Smell-O-Vision (1960), - The Baby Boomer ...." http://www.mikanet.com/museum/item.php?cat=13&index=0.

[9] "The Lingering Reek of Smell-O-Vision - Los Angeles Times." 5 Feb. 2006, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-tm-oops6feb05-story.html.

[10] "Smellovision (April Fool, 1965) - The Museum of Hoaxes." http://hoaxes.org/af_database/permalink/smellovision.

[11] "Startup Selling $2,550 Scent-Emitting Televisions | Popular Science." 2 Dec. 2014, https://www.popsci.com/startup-makes-2550-scent-emitting-televisions.

[12] "The Scientific Reason Everyone Smells Things Differently ...." 15 Dec. 2014, https://knowledgenuts.com/2014/12/15/the-scientific-reason-everyone-smells-things-differently/.