Can some scents reduce stress? Brain scientists are now confirming what herbalists and aroma researchers have long believed. Japanese researchers, using near-infrared spectroscopy, tested the effect of a “pleasant, floral green” aroma on subjects performing a mental arithmetic task and found that stress activity in the subjects’ prefrontal cortex was reduced compared to a control group. Stress-releated skin secretions were also reduced. This effect wasn’t instantaneous – the fragrance was administered over a four-week period. The researchers hope that their findings might eventually lead to a treatment regimen that prevents acne. The Japanese team was led by Masahiro Tanida and Masako Katsuyama of the Bioengineering Research Laboratories, at the Shiseido Life Science Research Center, in Yokohama, in conjunction with Kaoru Sakatani of the Department of Neurological Surgery, at Nihon University School of Medicine, in Tokyo, Japan. (Read more at Infrared Spectroscopy in Spot the Difference.)

While the neuromarketing implications from this work seem minimal – few marketers have regular and long-term access to their customers’ noses – I think the workplace opportunities are more promising. If scents can really reduce stress if applied over a period of time, what better place to employ aromatherapy than offices and other work locations? There’s little doubt that many offices do lose productivity due to stress… if you’ve ever worked in an environment where goals aren’t being met, or there are rumors of cutbacks or an acquisition, you know that the response of many workers is entirely counterproductive. Instead of focusing on getting the job done and preventing whatever problem is looming, they seem to become paralyzed. Rather than working, they obsess about what might happen, feed the rumor mill, and engage in other unproductive activity. Even in more normal work situations, prickly co-workers, grumpy bosses, balky computers, tight deadlines, and a million other factors may increase stress and reduce productivity.

It’s doubtful that a shot of lavender will ease all of the stress in a company trying to fight off a hostile takeover, but I can certainly see very mild aromas being made part of a total office environment, along with background music, lighting, privacy barriers, and so on. In some cases, aromas that are natural, like that of fresh-brewed coffee first thing in the morning, might be better than ersatsz compounds introduced via the HVAC system. Indeed, there is already a body of research suggesting that aromas can influence cognitive performance and workplace productivity:

Zoladz and Raudenbush (2005) have examined the effects of odorant administration on augmenting cognitive performance… Both cinnamon and peppermint odor, administered either retronasally or orthonasally, improved participants’ scores on tasks related to attentional processes, virtual recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor response speed. In addition, participants rated their mood and level of vigor higher, and their level of fatigue lower, in the peppermint condition.

A study conducted by Barker, Grayhem, Koon, Perkins, Whalen, and Raudenbush (2003) assessed whether such increases in cognitive performance through peppermint odor administration would also impact actual office-work clerical tasks. Participants completed three clerical tests–typing, memorization, and alphabetization–in either a non-odored or a peppermint-odored condition… A significant difference was found in the gross speed, net speed, and accuracy on the typing task, with peppermint odor associated with increased performance. Alphabetization ability also improved significantly in the peppermint odor condition.

Kliauga, Hubert, and Cenci (1996) had participants proofread pages of text containing misspelled words. The task was to identify the misspelled words while various scents were presented. Participants performed significantly better when fragrance was added to the room, with lavender odor producing the greatest effects in females, and peppermint producing the greatest effects in males. [From Positive Effects of Odorant Administration on Humans: A Review.]
There are some downsides to any efforts at workplace aromatherapy. Some individuals consider themselves to be unusually sensitive to odors, and any introduction of aromas might meet the same kind of resistance as the ill-fated scent-emitting milk posters in San Francisco. Still, subtle and pleasant aromas are certainly no more objectionable than the air fresheners, cleaning compounds, and many other scents that are likely already in the workplace – most employees would consider a less-stressful and pleasant-smelling workplace a benefit.

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