12 Neuroscience Nuggets for L&D #10 What does the Smell of Hot Tarmac make you Think of?

If I smell hot tarmac I am catapulted straight back to primary school and can feel the hot stuffy classroom, hear thesmells noise of the boys from the big school shouting coming through the open windows, can see the iron frames of the windows and the brick work of our classroom and re-experience that feeling of wanting to be outside instead of in class. How about you?

Why is smell such a strong memory trigger? There may be multiple reasons, including its physical proximity to the hippocampus, close links to the amygdala and the fact that it doesn’t get caught up in that bottleneck of sensory input at the thalamus. For some reason information about smell goes straight to various processing without going via the thalamus. You’ll remember the thalamus is a relay area that seems to send information off to lots of different parts of your brain.

Smells seem to be particularly important for conditioned responses (think Pavlov and his dogs) and we very quickly learn to associate smells with particular emotions and stimuli; most of these connections beginning in very early childhood. You can condition your own or your learners’ responses using scents. For instance, if someone needs to recall a specific piece of information or behave in a particular way then consistently link that information with a specific scent. A simple example is to revise for your maths exam smelling rosemary but your history exam smelling mint. When you go into other exam take in a tissue scented with the appropriate smell and you’ll find it easier to recall the relevant information.
You could link emotions and behaviours with smells. So for instance if a customer service representative wants to feel calm on the phone when Mr Angry rings up they could be trained to associate calmness with their favourite perfume or aftershave. Then when Mr Angry rings they just have to smell their wrist to feel calmer rather than have to go through the cognitive route of telling themselves to feel calm.

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