The Brut Effect: Cologne Doesn’t Really Make You Smarter

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In Brain Rules by John Medina, one of the more amusing anecdotes is an informal experiment by Medina on the potency of scent to enhance the formation of memories. Medina conducted the test while teaching a complex molecular biology topic to two classes. In one class, before each lesson he sprayed Brut cologne on the wall; the other class received no such treatment. (Medina doesn’t relate what comments, if any, students entering the cologne-scented classroom made.) When it was time for the final exam, he sprayed Brut for all students. The students who had received the Brut-scented lectures performed significantly better on the test.

While this experiment wasn’t scientifically rigorous, it is consistent with the theory that memories can be stimulated by sensory inputs similar to those present when the memory was formed. (Think Proust!) While Medina’s test was geared to testing simple recall, neuromarketing practitioners should consider how this effect might help customers make a purchase decision. Stores like Starbucks and bakeries practice this kind of marketing every day – merely passing by a store lets the customer inhale the aroma of coffee or oven-fresh baked goods, no doubt causing a combination of an unconscious Pavlovian response and a recollection of past good experiences in that environment. What studies like Medina’s show, though, is that the scent and memory need not be related to be effective – in this case, the Brut smell had nothing whatever to do with molecular biology, but still (apparently) enhanced recall of the topic.

I don’t think that repeated exposures to Brut actually makes you smarter, although the design of Medina’s experiment doesn’t rule out this possibility. 🙂 (ADDED: Possible evidence that Brut makes you dumber: Milwaukee man burned by aftershave, plans to sue.)

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2 Comments

  1. Jennifer says

    Interesting. I’ve heard about a similar effect, but that’s with music, not scents.

  2. Jennifer Dublino says

    The ability of scent to improve recall is behind a product called Whiffers. They are scented rubber bracelets. The idea is that the student wears them while studying and then again when it is time to take a test so that the scent helps provoke the memory of the material. I actually tried a version of this with my daughter. I had her smell peppermint essential oil while studying and then gave her a tissue with the peppermint oil on it (in a plastic bag) to smell during her test. It seemed to work and also woke her up and made her more alert during a rather boring, last period science class.

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