When you need to remember something important, it makes sense to look around for hacks and tricks to maximize your recall. And plenty of those are out there, but do they actually work? One popular tip involves chewing a certain flavour of gum or spraying a specific scent in the air while you study or work, then using the same gum or scent when it’s time to perform, such as when you’re taking a text or presenting the material you went over. The tip relies on the so-called Proust Effect, and if you use it, your mileage may vary.
What is the Proust Effect?
Marcel Proust, a 20th-century writer you may already be familiar with, was the man who came up with the term “involuntary memory” to describe being hit with a memory because of a scent, taste, sound, or another sense-based trigger. As a reward for his efforts, he got this effect named after himself.
It’s a real thing that happens to the best of us: A sensory stimuli, like walking by someone wearing the perfume your mom used to wear, can jolt us into a vivid memory of the past. The phenomenon has resulted in a lot of research, because it’s deeply human but also deeply physiological and scientific.
How do people use the Proust Effect to study?
When you search for studying and memory tips, this one comes up a lot. The University of Nebraska Kearney, for instance, recommends using unfamiliar scents as a “brain booster” by spraying a different scent every time you study a unique subject. Before your test in that subject, spray the corresponding scent because, they say, “this can help you recall information.”
Does the Proust Effect really work for studying and recall?
Here’s the thing: Involuntary memories are more emotional than they are practical. Research shows that olfactory cues are much more effective at triggering emotional memories than visual cues are. The scent of a spray or the taste of a gum might transport you back to when you were studying, but it’s not guaranteed to help you remember the details of what you were studying so much as make you feel the way you felt when you were doing that.
It’s similar to the idea of changing into a designated “study outfit” when it’s time to hit the books in that way: Scents can help you compartmentalize and get in the zone, which can have a positive impact on your focus and output, but they aren’t the magic cure-all to make you remember entire passages of text.
Chewing strawberry gum while you study for chemistry and again when taking your chemistry test is more likely to help you feel like you’re in your chemistry zone than anything, which, again, can be helpful. To really remember what you studied, though, make sure to double up on hacks by using a study technique, such as interleaving or the primacy effect.