Scent Gourmand

sinless pleasure for the perfume glutton

Month: March 2017

Fragrance to Help Learning? Makes scents!

A few years ago a wee article I wrote was published in a small institutional journal where I was employed in Tokyo. I wanted to find out if scent had any affect on the cognitive process of learning, so I did a little bit of digging. I had forgotten about this piece until today, while updating my teaching credentials. It’s not available online (unless you count the PDF I uploaded to an academic social network site), and it’s mine to share, so I’ve reproduced it below for your reading (hopefully) pleasure.

I am a self-confessed perfume fanatic. I have so many different bottles of olfactory art works in my home that it takes me a while to count them. Ironically, my passion for perfume developed after I moved to a country that is acknowledged as not having the same level of appreciation for fragrance as do some other nations, such as those of the Middle East. Depending on the scent I am wearing, the situation, and the peculiarities of the individuals who get a whiff of me, my use of perfume has surely been the cause of offense. Despite this, overhearing the whispered comment,「いい匂いですね」[(She) smells good, eh?] has become a common occurrence as I walk around my classrooms. I even get complimented to my face from time to time, which I not only find pleasing, but also interesting, as Japanese is not a language that employs the practice of complimenting as a form of ice-breaking or small talk to the same extent as English.

My interest in fragrance has sent me scavenging the Internet in search for answers to the question of why some people find some smells attractive when others do not, and why this depends so much on the individual, their culture, and even their age. When first introduced to a new scent, the human brain links it to a person, thing, event, or moment. The brain forges a link between the smell and a memory, associating lilies with funerals or chlorine with summer by the pool. The next time that scent is perceived, the link is already there, ready to elicit the emotion or mood associated with the memory the scent evokes. Lilies might be irritating and the smell of chlorine might cause happiness, and yet the reasons are not clear to the person experiencing those feelings.

This is part of the reason why people like and dislike different smells (Dowdey, n.d.). “As humans, we’re not immediately predisposed to respond to a scent and believe that it is good or bad,” says psychology and odor expert Rachel Herz, “When we like or don’t like a smell, that is learned.” This can be seen at the individual level: “Some people may smell a rose and be reminded of their father’s funeral. Others may like the smell of skunk because they have a positive attachment to it from childhood.” Likewise, this is true at the cultural level: In North American, a popular ingredient in candy and gum is wintergreen, but as wintergreen is often used to make medicine in the UK, the odor is less enticing there (Science of Scent, 2005). Finally, preferences are seen also at the generational level: “People born before 1930 love natural smells like grass and horses, while people born later are fond of synthetic smells like Play-Doh and SweeTarts” (Vlahos, 2007).

Marcel Proust was one of the first to write about memory recall as a strong, unconscious reaction to a smell. When someone smells something that triggers a very detailed, visual, and emotional memory of a childhood event they thought they had long forgotten, they are experiencing the “Proust Effect,“ which Chu and Downes assert to be a better cue for memory than the other senses, because odor memory falls off less rapidly than other sensory memory (2000).

But can scent have any impact on learning? Is my いい匂い [good smell] affecting my students’ learning in any way? Right brain function has tremendous potential for things like mass-memory and automatic processing. In most people, however, the pathways between their left and right brains have not been fully constructed, so this potential never fully develops. Science has found that certain scents, used properly, can be highly effective tools in building these neural pathways. Here’s a peek into some of the research on the positive effects of exposure to good smells:

Acute exposure to pleasant fragrances has been shown to facilitate the performance of mathematical tasks (Baron 1990), vigilance tasks (Warm et al. 1991), and word construction and, decoding of written messages (Baron and Bronfen, 1994; Baron and Thomley, 1994). Data gathered from research by Akpinar in 2005 showed that certain essential oil aromas increase students’ attention levels and enhance their memory, generally indicating positive effects on cognitive learning. Although lavender is known for its sedative qualities, Sakamoto (2005) found that “during recess periods after the accumulation of fatigue it can prevent deterioration performance in subsequent work sessions.”

Oliver and Moss (2012) suggest that the pine-like scent of rosemary oil may improve speed and accuracy when performing certain mental tasks. In their research, 20 people were asked to perform subtraction exercises and a task to see how quickly they could process new information before and after being exposed to the scent of rosemary. Participants’ blood levels of rosemary’s main chemical component – of 1, 8-cineole – were measured after the experiment. Results saw a strong correlation between amounts of 1, 8-cineole in the bloodstream and high task scores. Specialists do not fully understand how essences such as rosemary can improve mental ability, but an increasing body of literature shows that positive mood is triggered by scents, and this in turn is linked to an increase in productivity and performance, as well as many other benefits such as stress reduction.

Freeman showed that smell memory is context dependent and can be modified and updated when facing new experiences, implying that our olfactory sense is continuously dynamic (1991). Applying this knowledge to education, Björn Rasch and his colleagues at the University of Lübeck found that smelling the scent of roses while learning a task and then being exposed to the same smell during sleep helps memories to solidify. The section of the brain called the hippocampus is believed to serve as the temporary in-box for memory, where new knowledge or experiences are loaded and stored until they can be filed elsewhere for long-term storage and access.

During sleep, the memories in the hippocampus are reactivated and transferred to the cortex. As one might imagine, a lot of this short-term data never makes it to more permanent storage in the brain, but with scent being used as a trigger, such as in the case above of the roses, a lot more information makes the journey over. Simulating this experience for one’s own benefit is not that straightforward, however. Rasch discovered that timing was crucial for the test to work; the rose smell had to be switched on and off during the night so that the brain would not get used to it, and the smell was only effective during “slow wave” sleep, a sleep stage wherein the hippocampus is most sensitive. Not only this, but the smell trick is useful only for certain types of learning that rely on the hippocampus. It is not useful for remembering the skills needed for playing an instrument or perform a sport, for example (2007).

Certainly, trying to emulate precisely the study above may prove a little tricky, but it will not stop me from sharing the results of Rasch’s research with my students, and getting them to do a little bit of their own experimentation: While studying for a test, students could wear a perfume or essential oil that they really like on their wrist, and smell it periodically while studying. They could then make sure they are wearing that exact scent on test day, or perhaps carry something like a scarf scented with the fragrance, and again smell it periodically during the exam. Perhaps the smell will unlock something in their brain during test time that will allow them to more easily access the information they had previously reviewed?

Based on the work that has been done so far in the field of smell, students may not even have to go that far; simply surrounding themselves with favorable scents while studying may increase their learning efficacy, pushing memories out of short term and into long term storage. There appears to be a lot that teachers could do to help, such as employing room spray or essential oil diffusers where possible.

One would have to take care to use the right type of fragrance, however. Certain types of scent stimulation, like food, can disrupt the accelerated learning functions of our brain. Chemical smells from some air fresheners, perfume, and even some essential oils can also be distracting and could block learning. To avoid the issue of chemical sensitivity, and to be more consistent in using the same odorous materials as studies involving scent have employed, pure essential oil usage would perhaps be the better choice. Aromatherapists tout the use of certain essential oils to provoke specific outcomes.

Research is lacking in the area, but perhaps the popular practice of using scent in this way can no longer be so readily brushed off as pure pseudoscience, despite the fact that a lot off aromatherapy marketing is full of exaggerated and false claims, especially in the area of health. In addition to the scents of rose, rosemary, and lavender mentioned above, peppermint, lemon, jasmine, grapefruit, frankincense, cinnamon, and vetiver are mentioned in aromatherapy literature as having a positive effect on learning and creativity. While more scientific evidence is in the making, why not try these scents in the classroom? At the very least they will produce a more pleasant learning environment for students.

One thing is for sure: As long as students respond as positively as I do to the fumes wafting off my person, I will continue to enjoy wearing my fragrances to class.


Akpinar, B. (2005). Do scents affect people’s moods or work performance? Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences, 3(7), 952-960.

Baron, R.A. (1990). Environmentally Induced Positive Affect: Its Impact on Self-Efficacy, Task Performance, Negotiation, and Conflict. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20(5), 368-384.

Baron, R.A., & Thomley, J. (1994). A whiff of reality: Positive affect as a potential mediator of the effects of pleasant fragrances on task performance and helping. Environment and Behavior, 26(6), 766-784.

Baron, R.A., & Bronfen, M.M. (2006). A Whiff of Reality: Empirical Evidence Concerning the Effects of Pleasant Fragrances on Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(13), 1129-1220.

Chu, S., & Downes, J.J. (2000). Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Chemical Senses, 25(1), 111-116.

Do scents affect people’s moods or work performance?: Scientific American. (2002, November 11). Scientific American. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Dowdey, S. (n.d.). How Smell Works. HowStuffWorks “Science”. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Freeman, W.J. (1991). The Physiology of Perception. Scientific American, 264(2), 78-85.

Herz, R.S. (2005). Odor-associative Learning and Emotion: Effects on Perception and Behavior. Chemical Senses, 30((supp 1)), i250-i251. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Moss, M., & Oliver, L. (2012). Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 2(3), 103-113 .

Rasch, B., Buchel, C., Gais, S., & Born, J. (2007). Odor Cues During Slow-Wave Sleep Prompt Declarative Memory Consolidation. Science, 315(5817), 1426-1429. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Sakamoto, R., Minoura, K., Usui, A., Ishizuka, Y., & Kanba, S. (2005). Effectiveness of Aroma on Work Efficiency: Lavender Aroma during Recesses Prevents Deterioration of Work Performance. Chemical Senses, 30(8), 683-691. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Science of Scent. (2005, January 5). Brown University. Retrieved August 18, 2013, from

Vlahos, J. (2007, September 9). Scent and Sensibility. The New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

Warm, J.S., Dember, W.N., & Parasuraman, R. (1991). Effects of olfactory stimulation on performance and stress in a visual sustained attention task. Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Science, 42, 199-210. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from

DIY Poopourri – make your own perfumed eau de “toilet”

Poopourri is clever product that has been successful due to its concept and zany marketing. How it works: before you release your burdens into the porcelain god, you spray Poopourri into the bowl, being sure to coat the surface. The oily surface wraps around your baggage as it plops down, and the surface film reunites again to block your waste below, all the while releasing a refreshing bouquet of delightful smells upward toward your nose and the general vicinity. It’s like you were never there! This saves embarrassment if there are people who want to use the room after you have completed your business. If you haven’t yet seen any of the company’s videos, prepare to be entertained:

The ingredients in Poopouri do not include harsh chemicals and are therefore both safe to breathe and flush. The concoction consists of essential oils and natural compounds. Well, then, you should be able to make your own, if that is true. And in fact it is true, and you can do it much more cheaply.


Find a container for your DYI blend, preferably a dark glass container to prevent light from getting at the delicate perfumes. Find out how much it contains (leaving space at the top) and divide that amount by at least 8.

  • 4 parts distilled water – boiling and cooling tap water is fine
  • 2 parts rubbing alcohol (or 2x that amount of vodka)
  • 1 part carrier oil (like avocado oil which has a light scent)
  • 1 part vegetable glycerin (No glycerine? Add another part carrier oil OR try (scent-free) dish washing liquid or liquid hand soap- both acts as a surfactant.)
  • about 20 drops of your blend of essential oils for each ounce of your mixture.
  • (optional) food colouring (however much you want so as to be able to see it – you may want to know if you have the basin covered enough)

The recipe above can be tweaked. I’ve read different versions online, but they all have the same basic ingredients.

A surfactant, by the way (like soap or detergent), is a substance that emulsifies fats and oils, as well as absorbs odors such as sulphur. It keeps the bottle where the product is housed from clogging and the toilet bowl from getting an oily ring-around-the-bowl. It also keeps the plumbing pipes clean.

To use your own DIY poopourri, simply shake and spray (about 4 times, depending on size and power of your spray nozzle) into the bowl – forming a nice, even, greasy coating – before you go.

Now here’s the fun part for perfumistas: Try it with perfume instead of (or in addition to) essential oils! It’s one of many ways to make use of old or unwanted perfume. Using perfume is neither as potent or deodorizing (unless you use a lot), nor is it likely as safe for your sewage system as most essential oils, but it does work. How much you will need depends on the strength of the concentration. Oil-based perfumes are ideal. If you’re using an alcohol-based perfume, you’ll probably need less rubbing alcohol/vodka.

If you are on the go, you can decant your pooourri into small spray bottles, or small glass dropper bottles (recycle those bottles of e-liquid vapers use, recycle eyedropper bottles, or recycle skincare serum bottles). Spray bottle do disperse the product a lot better, but droppers can work as well.

Samples from Rancé 1795 – Joséphine & Eau de la Couronne

Rancé 1795

Rancé 1795 is an old French perfume house from the Rancé family of the 1600s, famous for producing perfumed gloves for the French Aristocracy in Grasse. At that time Europe was a pretty stinky place to be, and gloves, fans and handkerchiefs were used by upper class ladies to disguise the putrid and pungent stenches around them (mostly of humanity; people rarely bathed).

In creating “Le Vainqueur”, “Triomphe” and “L’Eau de Austerliz” for Napolean, François Rancé was held in high esteem. Rancé also created a perfume for Joséphine Bonaparte called “l’Impératrice” the bottle of which is still a treasure of the house. Since that period, the house of Rancé has dedicated many of its perfumes to the heroes and heroines of the Napoleonic era. Rancé’s philosophy embraces tradition, innovation, and naturalness – an interesting combination that likely has something to do with the brand’s long life. Granddaughter Jeanne Sandra Rancé with her son Jean Maurice Alexandre Rancé today run the company.

Perfume writer Donna Hathaway:

Napoleon approached master perfumer Francois Rancé before his coronation in 1804 to commission him to make two perfumes – one for himself [Le Vanquer Napoleon] and one for his love Joséphine [Joséphine]. Rancé designed the fragrances such that hers would dominate if both she and Napoleon were in the same room, However, should they be in close proximity, the two perfumes would merge to create a new unique fragrance. In 2004 the house of Rancé relaunched these two perfumes. They could not have done so earlier, as Napoleon made the house promise not to release the perfumes until 200 years after the coronation.


Joséphine is part of the Collection Impériale, and it is a joyous perfume – brilliant, sensuous and charming, like Joséphine herself (Napoleon’s most loved). It’s an oriental floral created by Jeanne Sandra Rancé, and the top notes are orris, black currant, galbanum, violet leaf, cloves and white peach; middle notes are jasmine, hiacynth and ylang-ylang; base notes are amber, sandalwood, bourbon vanilla and white musk.

This scent is definitely not dated in any way; it’s to fresh and smooth not to have been created sometime in the past two decades. It’s a fruity and tarte composition with a fair bit of complexity, and did not go sour on me when tested. It lingered close to my skin and stayed demure and elegant throughout it’s life. Beautiful, classy, and feminine – yes, but way too polite for me. Josephine bears semblance to Lancome’s  Miracle, Donna Karan’s Gold, and Lalique’s Flora Bella according to some Fragrantica reviewers, but I cannot speak to this. I cannot recall Lancome’s Miracle (not that miraculous if I can’t remember it!) and have yet to get my nose on the other two.

Eau de la Couronne

Jean Rancé dedicated this one to Napoleon’s sister Paolina, and the fragrance was recreated around 2009. It’s from the Rue Rancé collection. The formulae endeavors to come as close as possible to the originals from centuries past. Although I have read some reviews compare this with Dior’s J’Adore, I did not catch a strong resemblance, although the composition is indeed a fruity, shimmery, golden floral. If you love freesia, you will love this this breezy, perfumey composition. There is a beguiling innocence to the scent – I picture a delicate, quiet girl coming of age. I admit, however, that I was disappointed – the main reason being that it dissipated far too quickly. Sad, as the fragrance is in fact intriguing, fresh, and sensual.


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