New Study: Foul Odor Can Negatively Impact Learning

By December 22, 2011January 28th, 2019News

Almost since the dawn of man, the time one spends practicing has a direct impact on performance and learning.  Simply put, the more one practices, the smarter they become.

But a new study might possibly have stumbled upon a wrinkle in this time-honored truism. Actually, make that a crinkle. The study, published this past May in “Nature Neuroscience,” indicated that exposure to bad smells while practicing or studying can lead to impaired learning.

The researchers used auditory cues to draw their conclusions. Tone pairs – notes of very similar or identical frequencies – were presented to volunteers in sterile environments. The only other stimuli used, apart from the noises, were smells. Tone pairs were given alone or accompanied by either rancid or fragrant odors delivered via nose masks. After hearing the notes, participants were asked to indicate whether the notes were the same or different.

The study found that participants were more likely to correctly distinguish between tone frequencies when they were given no additional scents, or when the sounds were combined with pleasant smells. However, when tone pairs were linked to foul odors, the subjects’ ability to discriminate between tones actually worsened – a consequence that researchers say is caused by the difficulty ours senses have in parsing stimuli linked to negative events. The effect can even persist up to a whole day later.

The study provides compelling evidence for schools and other education centers to take odor management seriously. Noxious odors can make learning a challenge, and schools owe it to their students to maintain environments that are conducive to studying.