Erwin Swaray ‘16 examines how odor impacts memory

Erwin Swaray ’16 (psychology major and neuroscience concentrator) vividly remembers the time he ran at a track tournament at University of Minnesota when he was younger and had been outrun by a girl. But what unforgettable of that moment is not the fact that he lost, but the particular odor of a tree with pink flowers that he saw and smelt before the race. Since then, whenever he smells that odor, it takes him back to that time.

“It got me interested in how odor affects memory so I was thinking that my comps should be [on] how odor impacts what you remember,” explained Swaray. “By doing that, I’ve been able to create an experiment on how well you are able to recall according to which odor you smell.”

The topic of his comps is to examine the influence of an odor’s emotional salience when it acts as a retrieval cue for semantic memory. In other words, he intends to see if “emotional” odors influence, possibly enhance, a person’s memory when recalling a specific event. For example, in Swaray’s case, whether the smell of that tree did, in fact, help him recall his race at U of M more easily or not.

To find out the results of his hypothesis, he conducted mainly two separate experiments: a pilot study and the main study.

He first tested 10 people on which scents evoked their strongest memory, meaning what smells proved to be the most emotional one, based on its familiarity, intensity, and pleasantness. Then he tested 40 people in his main study by making them recall pairs of words that they have seen while being exposed to different odors. The more pairs the subjects would remember, the more memory-evoking the odor proves to be.

One of his main study subjects, Khuaten Maaneb de Macedo ’16 (Biology) thought that memories of different words impacted how she recalled the incident but didn’t expect it had anything to with scent before the experiment.

“I feel like it may have hindered my memory a little bit because I was trying to figure out what exactly the smell was,” she said. “I know and I love coconut fragrances, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

Through his pilot study, he found out that despite individual differences, the smell of peppermint tended to evoke the most emotions from people while coconut being the least. His most emotional odor was the smell of popcorn.

Through his main study, he discovered that the most emotional odor (mean value of the data was 9.5) led to a greater recall than the least emotional odor (mean value was 8.7), but the difference between the memory recall of the odors was not big enough to draw any significant conclusions.

However, Swaray believes that if his study was conducted on a larger scale, involving over 50 participants, he would have been able to see a greater trend and do further research on how odors impact memory. He hopes that it could even help students to study better and more effectively.

“If those odors can be used as a cognitive device when you are studying for a test, maybe you smell a particular odor and that’s going to help you recall the questions for the test better,” said Swaray.

After graduation, he wishes to work as a pharmacy technician and enroll in a pharmacy school, after taking more courses in chemistry and biology, to study about drugs and their effects.


This article was published on the Carleton’s website.