Du Malone writes: As even a precursory search on Google will show, there’s no shortage of view on the effect that aromas can have on mental performance.

Much of this discussion is non-scientific. There’s a good deal of folk wisdom about the effects of aromas such as rosemary and lavender — not to mention the multitude of claims made by businesses wishing to sell you therapeutic  or alternative medicine products.

Though non-scientific, the folk wisdom isn’t necessarily wrong. Indeed it has sometimes been taken sufficiently seriously to prompt scientific investigation.

Science

There’s a growing body of scientific knowledge in this area, derived from rigorous randomised and controlled testing.

The first researcher I came across in this area was Dr Mark Moss of Northumbria University. His publications include studies of effects of peppermint oil on cognition and mood, the effect of rosemary oil on the cognitive performance of pupils in middle childhood, and the effect of peppermint and ylang ylang on cognitive performance and mood.

In general it does seem that there is potential for using aromas to modify cognitive performance.

How?

So far as I can see, the mechanisms by which such effects occur are not particularly well understood. But in a paper, in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, on the effects of aroma in the context of stress, Chamine & Oken discuss the role of four processes, namely the “pharmacologic, hedonic, psychological, and contextual”.

According to them:

  • Pharmacologic mechanism is unique to specific aromas and is produced by major aroma constituents affecting neural activity by activating specific olfactory receptors”
  • “The hedonically driven mechanism produces mood changes stemming from the odor’s hedonic qualities (e.g., pleasantness) with secondary effects on other functions”
  • “The psychological mechanism creates odor-related benefits resulting from expectancies about odor qualities”
  • The contextual/associative mechanism generates effects linked to previous odor associations with particular stimuli”

It follows from the above that it’s not possible to be definitive about the effects of aromas. In particular, people in contrasting moods, expectancies, or associations may experience aromas differently.

FM managerial performance

With that important caveat in mind, I thought it might be worth reporting my personal impression of the effects of aromas on my FM performance — and for that matter on my day job and my sleep.

These findings are of course, unlike those of the above studies, entirely unscientific.**

My main findings are:

  • there are some aromas that seem to enhance the quality of my sleep at night. These include lavender, ylang ylang, and ginger
  • unsurprisingly, the sleep-enhancing aromas are not good for FM performance
  • in particular, beware lavender: if it doesn’t get you the sack, it will at least get you relegated
  • if you do get sacked or relegated, use frankincense to console you. It’s expensive though, it’s better just to raise you game.
  • there are some aromas that I enjoy using but which seem to have a neutral effect (or at best mildly positive) effect on FM performance. They include rosemary and sage
  • some aromas help me to sustain performance over time. For example, peppermint and juniper

And, finally, there are the aromas you want to know about — the ones that seem to me to enhance most enhance performance. They’re all citrus-type: lemon, mandarin, and orange. Lime is proving promising too.

 

** In particular, I have no way of distinguishing any placebo effects, though this doesn’t worry me — if the effect is positive, who cares what kind of effect it is?

 

Image credit: Fanner of Frankincense, generously made available by Meena Kadri (‘Meanest Indian’) under a  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.