Dr. Mary Mollway, Ed.D.
Essential Oils and Cognition
One day on vacation, you are walking through a quaint little town on the coast and you smell the most amazing scents coming from the local bakery. The scent of freshly baked cookies transports you back to spending weekends with your grandma baking up delicious treats that you ALWAYS had to test while they were still warm with a cold glass of milk.
How do smells transport us back and conjure up such powerful memories and emotions? The part of our brain that processes smell, the olfactory bulb, is very near the hippocampus where we store long-term memories, and the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain. It is has been well-documented in research that scent can be a powerful memory maker and help us recall powerful events as well. In fact, researchers found the scents were far more powerful in helping elderly adults remember past experiences than pictures (de Brujin, 2018).
The power of scents does not end with conjuring up important memories; they also can improve our brain function and change our brainwave activity. Wait. WHAT? Yes. Many studies have shown that certain scents can improve working memory, attention, long-term memory, and alertness. They can also calm anxiety and promote better sleep. My readings have mostly centered on the use of essential oils, so we will focus on that for today’s blog.
The big winner is peppermint. I happen to keep peppermint on hand at all times and is my go-to essential oil for staying alert, staving off fatigue, and helping with digestion. Research done with young children, adolescents, and adults has all shown that peppermint enhances alertness (Hoult, Longstaff, & Moss, 2019; Raudenbush et al, 2009) and decreased frustration with difficult tasks (Raudenbush et al, 2009). In addition, it has been shown to enhance memory retention, brain arousal, attention, and performance on motor tasks such as typing or driving (Moss, Moss & Wetness, 2008; Barker et al, 2003; Deivanayagame et al, 2020). Finally, peppermint was also found to improve visual and auditory reaction times (Deivanayagame et al, 2020). For these studies, the peppermint oil was delivered in a variety of ways-through a diffuser, a skin patch, and nasal inhalation.
The next big player in cognition is rosemary. Rosemary was found to improve immediate memory recall, working memory, speed and accuracy in motor tasks, and sentence and number recall. In addition to all of that, it also improved mood and reduced feelings of anxiety (Moss & Oliver, 2012, Moss et al, 2003, Moss et al, 2017).
Cinnamon is another heavy hitter. Raudenbush et al (2009) found cinnamon to improve attention and focus. In addition, Chen and Chen (2008) found it reduced hyperactivity and improved alertness in children with an ADHD diagnosis. Certain compounds in cinnamon are used to make stimulant medications and the researchers suggested cinnamon might be an alternative to stimulant medications for children who are too young to take them.
Finally, orange oil was found to improve alertness and working memory for numbers. Math teachers rejoice! (Wattanathorn et al, 2009).
What about our good friend lavender? You can find lavender in many Epsom salts, pillow sprays, and other sleep aids. Lavender is fantastic at improving mood, reducing anxiety, and improving sleep. However, it is not good to use during academic tasks. It was found to decrease working memory and reaction times. Last week we discussed the impact of anxiety on working memory, so maybe sniffing lavender before school could help lower anxiety but then switch to Rosemary during the school day for cognition and mood (Moss et al, 2003).
Essential oils may prove to be an important tool for improving our memory, attention, focus, and attention. As Toucan Sam used to say, “follow your nose…it always knows!. If you don’t know that reference, you grew up in a different era than I did.
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional or certified herbalist. Please consult with your trusted health practitioner for questions regarding decisions about your health or treatment options.
Barker, S., Grayhem, P., Koon, J., Perkins, J., Whalen, A., & Raudenbush, B. (2003). Improved Performance on Clerical Tasks Associated with Administration of Peppermint Odor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 97(3), 1007–1010. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.2003.97.3.1007
Chen, Hui-Ming, Chen, H. (2008). The effect of applying cinnamon aromatherapy for children with Attention Defiicit Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Chinese Medicine. 19 (1, 2) 27-34. https://cinnamonzone.hk/DOWNLOADS/ADHD_and_cinnamon_study.pdf
de Bruijn, M. J., and Bender, M. 2018. Olfactory cues are more effective than visual cues in experimentally triggering autobiographical memories. Memory 26:547–58. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2017.1381744
Deivanayagame, B. & Kumar, S., Maruthy, A. & Kareem, S. (2020). Effect of Peppermint Aroma on Short Term Memory and Cognition in Healthy Volunteers. International Journal of Physiology. 8. 16-20. 10.5958/2320-608X.2020.00004.9.
Hoult, L., Longstaff, L. and Moss, M. (2019) Prolonged Low-Level Exposure to the Aroma of Peppermint Essential Oil Enhances Aspects of Cognition and Mood in Healthy Adults. American Journal of Plant Sciences, 10 (6). pp. 1002-1012. ISSN 2158-2742
Moss M., Cook J., Wesnes K., & Duckett P. (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. International Journal of Neuroscience. Jan;113(1):15-38. doi: 10.1080/00207450390161903. PMID: 12690999.
Moss, M., Earl, V., Moss, L. and Heffernan, T. (2017) Any Sense in Classroom Scents? Aroma of Rosemary Essential Oil Significantly Improves Cognition in Young School Children. Advances in Chemical Engineering and Science, 7, 450- 463. https://doi.org/10.4236/aces.2017.74032
Moss M., Hewitt S., Moss L., Wesnes K. (2008) Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. International Journal of Neuroscience, 118(1):59-77. doi: 10.1080/00207450601042094. PMID: 18041606.
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):103-13. doi: 10.1177/2045125312436573. PMID: 23983963; PMCID: PMC3736918
Raudenbush, B., Grayhem, R., Sears, T., & Wilson, I. (2009). Effects of peppermint and cinnamon odor administration on simulated driving alertness, mood and workload. North American Journal of Psychology, 11(2), 245. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A200919505/HRCA?u=oregon_oweb&sid=googleScholar&xid=630422f4
Wattanathorn, J. , Muchimapura, S., Kaewkaen, P., Kirisattayaku, W., ,Khongrom1,3, Niran Ngernyam, J., Prabsattroo, T., Sutalangkha, C., Thukham-mee, W., Panakaporn, W., & Tong-un, T. (2009). Effect of Aroma of Orange Essential Oil on Working Memory of Young Adults. Journal of Neuroscience 7(4), 42-50. https://neurosci.kku.ac.th/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/7-4-42-50.pdf