Do your meetings always come up roses, or do delegates smell a rat? Katherine Simmons reports on how olfactory experiences can be harnessed to aid concentration
Smell is the sense which can knock your socks off.
The power of smell can instantly transport you back to a definite place and time, whether its sweet peas in your grandmother’s garden or the vile stench of the Portaloos at a music festival. Leading scientists argue that it is one of the most powerful methods of memory recall, yet it still remains one of the least appreciated senses.
Memories, complete with their associated emotions can be conjured up by a single smell. The association is a learned one. For some the smell of roses will conjure up a perfume or garden, but others may associate the scent with funerals. The phenomenon is known as the ‘Proust Effect’ after Marcel Proust’s description of an event in the first volume in Remembrance of Things Past.
For me, the ‘Proust Effect’ often kicks in when I walk past a bakery. Every Sunday morning when I was about eight years old I’d walk to a quaint Brighton bakery with my dad. Along with a warm loaf for breakfast, dad would always buy a bun or cake which we’d share on the walk back to our house. We knew we were being naughty by not buying cakes for my mother and two sisters (who would have kicked up a racket had they found out), so we were careful to shake off incriminating crumbs during the ten minute walk back to our house. The smell of bakeries still conjures up plenty of associations - along with the realisation that dad could be naughty too!
Smell is a dynamic sense which is constantly changing and new associations are always being made. Twenty years after I made the bakery association I had another scent-sational moment. I was staying over at a villa next door to the Marbella home of PR mogul Max Clifford, who I was interviewing. On opening the door I was literally stopped in my tracks by an overpowering floral smell. My brain told me that my first task wasn’t to move my suitcase into my room or put the kettle on, I had to find out what ‘that smell’ was. I followed my nose to the lounge - on the table was an absolutely huge vase of Stargazer lilies. Now, every time I smell a lily, even if there are just one or two in a vase, it reminds me of Max.
Professor Tim Jacobs of the School of the Biosciences at Cardiff University says the effect of smell on people is vastly underrated. “How we smell, why we smell and the impact of smell on our everyday life are poorly understood. We certainly underestimate the importance of smell to our well-being - ask an anosmic (someone who has lost some or all of their sense of smell). Some anosmics suffer from depression and their quality of life is severely affected - at the moment there is little that can be done to help them.
Although we don’t tend to think about it, the power of smell has a huge impact on our lives: “There are suggestions that smell can influence mood, memory, emotions, mate choice, the immune system and the endocrine system (hormones). We can communicate by smell - without knowing it. In fact, the sense of smell could be said to be at the mind-body interface.”
Our sense of smell can also impact on our concentration. “When people were exposed to an odour they liked, creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odour condition,” says Rachel S Herz of Brown University, one of the United States’ leading experts on the psychology of smell.
And if you stimulate your delegate’s nostrils in the nicest possible way, not only will you be rewarded with increased creativity, but you could smooth the path to better group working. Herz adds: “Prosocial behaviour and productivity are also enhanced in the presence of pleasant ambient odours. For example, people exposed to the smells of baking cookies or roasting coffee were more inclined to help a stranger than people not exposed to an odour manipulation. People who worked in the presence of a pleasant smelling air freshener also reported higher self-efficacy, set higher goals and were more likely to employ efficient work strategies than participants who worked in a no-odour condition.”
But be warned. A nasty niff in your meeting room could have the opposite effect, hindering delegate concentration and the performance of complex tasks. As Herz explains: “Pleasant ambient odours have been found to enhance vigilance during a tedious task and improve performance on anagram and word completion tests. Conversely, the presence of a malodour reduced participants’ subjective judgments and lowered their tolerance for frustration. Participants in these studies also reported concordant mood changes. Thus, the observed behavioural responses are due to the effect the ambient odours have on people’s mood.”
Let’s turn to a question that few organisers would dare to ask - how can I get up my delegates’ noses? If it’s true that we can boost concentration and our memory through our hooters then we need to know which scents are the best at encouraging alertness and memory recall.
Professor Jacobs says there are a number of scents which are proven to boost concentration: “You can increase alertness and, therefore, mental performance through use of rosemary and menthol-based scents. In Japanese office blocks the odours are pumped through the air conditioning to make staff more alert, but it’s not considered ethical in the UK.”
“Published research on truck drivers exposed to different odours while driving shows that there are certain smells which can make you more alert. Peppermint, for example, helped the drivers retain their alertness.”
“A smell is an encoding process and can be used to improve memory and retrieval performance. It is a good way to access the memory. I am surprised that so few students use it in exams as it has proved effective so many times – they could put the scent on a tissue, for example. It can relax you and makes you think that you are going to do better.”
So next time you are thinking about a conference gift for your delegates, why not make it a smelly one? Prof Jacobs suggests a gift or gobo impregnated with a fragrance used in the conference room could make the most of this mind-body interface and help your delegates recall the message of the day.
Kicking up a stink
By now you are probably wondering what is the worst possible smell which could potentially enter your meeting room? And yes, M&IT can confirm this foul stench is one emitted by human beings.
It’s vital that organisers are aware of this big stinker – because they certainly have an influence over its variables - how many people are in the room; temperature setting for the air conditioning; dress code and whether or not you give your delegates sufficient time in the programme to hit the shower.
As you might have guessed, the worst smell you could encounter in a meeting room according to smell expert Professor Tim Jacobs is body odour.
It could even lead to panic.: “One of the things about body odour is that it can have an unsettling effect on people,” says Prof Jacobs. “It can make them feel anxious - it’s like a warning signal telling your brain that you should take avoiding action.”
residing publication (publisher, magazine,...):
m&it meetings & incentive travel - April 2008