The nose knows – using our senses to support learning
Our sense of smell is one of the earliest to develop – being operational at about two months after conception. We can’t actually use this sense in those early days because the forming nasal passages remain blocked until some 28 weeks into the pregnancy. When this blockage clears, we can and do pick up smells in the environment – one of the most significant being the smell of the amniotic fluid in which we grow. Incidentally, this is the reason why newborns are not instantly whisked away to be washed as in the past. They are put onto Mom’s chest, allowing amniotic fluid to be transferred to her body and thus giving the baby the comfort of having a very familiar smell to help overcome the traumatic birthing event and make the transition to a strange new world.
We understand that the early developing senses (others include touch and taste) are crucial to our survival and well-being and even though we no longer have to rely on our sense of smell to warn us of danger or tell us what foods we can safely eat, it has implications for our functioning and even our learning.
Smell (or more correctly, the olfactory system) is unique in the way it sends information from the sensory cells in the nose to the brain. Firstly, it is the only sense that cannot be prevented from reaching the areas of the brain that interpret and give meaning to the incoming smell. Most other senses rely on the Thalamus (the brain’s ‘gatekeeper’) to admit them to the higher cortex. Not so with smell because the neurons carrying the information bypass the thalamus. This means that all smells that we have ever encountered travel to the brain and are registered there. The area of the brain dedicated to processing smells is intertwined with the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions. For this reason, smells last for ever in our memories and are connected to emotions. Smells from the past can trigger feelings and memory, as well as impact on mood and behaviours. This is why certain smells vividly bring back the past and the emotions that accompanied an old event.
The fact that smell is the most significant trigger of memories may be a clue to how it can be used to support learning. When we study, we try to store information, facts and figures in our memory. What if we use smell to help register and then nudge those stored memories back into our conscious mind in order to answer questions or solve problems? It’s worth trying.
If a student finds a smell that she or he considers pleasant and soothing, having that smell present in the study area will form connections between the smell and memories being formed while studying. If the same smell is taken into the test situation, it is theoretical possible that the smell will help access the memorised content
To do this, using good quality essential oils may be the best way to go. A cotton wool ball soaked in the chosen oil can be carried along to a venue in a closed container, and surreptitiously sniffed on occasion.
Smell, being an important sense, has other implications for our functioning, which will be discussed in a following post.