This week is Adult Learners week, it’s timely for me, because I too shall be going back to college in a fortnight to start a degree in Classical Studies. As you know, I am fascinated by the effects that inhaling essential oils can have on my body (especially for weight loss right now!) but I wanted to check that my efforts to lose a pound or two aren’t going to derail other efforts to study and get my job done. So today, we’re going to have a look at some of the research into essential oils for memory and focus.
The five best essential oils for memory and focus are rosemary, peppermint, lemon, lavender and vetiver. Part of the skill of using essential oils for memory and focus is knowing how and when best to use them. Most of the essential oils for memory and focus are stimulating. Their job is to make you more alert, to become hyper focused and interested in what you are doing. Some will make your brain process faster, and others stimulate your memory to recall things faster. Just as important is understanding which oils can help you sleep and retain information as you do so. Likewise, simply piling them all together in one blend can be problematic.
Today we will look at how and why essential oils can be so useful for helping you to concentrate and remember and the best ways to use them to study, revise and learn.
How Do Essential Oils for Memory and Focus Work?
In truth, we don’t fully understand how essential oils for memory and focus work, but what we do know is that smell is processed in the same part of the brain as learning and cognition happens.
Molecules go up the nose, and land on a tiny piece of tissue called the olfactory bulb. In this dime-sized membrane there are around 100,000 receptors. These send messages along nerves to a set of structures in the brain called the limbic system. Here the messages are decoded to recognize around 3 million different aromas. So, when you randomly smell something that reminds you of a person or place, it’s because the memory bank and where you process smell are linked. The amygdala, the brain structure that processes sensory information, and the hippocampus, the area responsible for storing episodic memories for later access, sit next to each other in the brain.
People have obviously known at least some of this for a very long time. People have said “Rosemary for remembrance” since at least medieval times. This referred to wearing rosemary being a symbol for remembering someone who had passed on, but rosemary is also one of our best essential oils for memory and focus.
So, smells trigger different parts of our brain to work.
Are Animal Trials about Essential Oils for Memory and Focus Relevant?
It’s a great question, because a lot of the data we have is taken from animal experiments. answer.
Mice and rats are evolutionarily similar to humans and it’s possible to make biological changes in just one generation. Researchers can make their assessments on behavior and then easily look at tissues in their brains by sacrificing them. That’s not too easy to do with humans.
The important thing to remember in these situations is scientists do these tests because they can see that essential oils for memory and focus work well. Working out exactly why tells us something about the oils. It teaches us more about the human brain.
It is easy to get frustrated when a study is about mice and rats.But this should reassure us that the funding has been obtained because the historical data of these plants helping people in the herbal field is already very good. What the scientists are seeking to do is to isolate exactly which molecule is doing the job. Then they can isolate it, synthesize it, patent it and sell it.
If you are wondering how emulating essential oils for memory and focus can help drug companies, think Alzheimers and Dementia as a starting point. Research into these conditions provides us with a great deal of scientific evidence into aromatherapy for concentration and learning. These findings will also be for women of a certain age, because menopause can play hell with memory. Brain fog is also one of the main symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Scent Helps Link What-When Where
Here’s and interesting example of how research into essential oils for memory and focus is being used.
It’s only very recently that we have started to understand why smell moves us through time. I’m sure everyone has experienced how scent can move you through time, to transport you back to your grandmother’s kitchen, or to a lover’s kiss. This is called the Proust phenomenon, after Marcel Proust who wrote the most beautiful book about being transported back to his childhood after having eaten a madeleine cake. The phenomenon happens thanks to a part of the brain called the anterior olfactory nucleus (AON) which is responsible for spatiotemporal memory - (time and space). It is one of the first areas to degenerate in Alzheimer’s disease.
That you might occasionally have these moments where you shift through time is a very good sign, because it shows that part of the brain is functioning well. A team from Toronto University made a remarkable discovery about it when they sought to understand exactly what the role of the AON is in memory. So they did an interesting mice experiment.
New Smell/Old Smell
So, here’s the thing…mice really like smells. And what’s more they really enjoy the experience of discovering a new smell. Very exciting stuff. So given the choice they would much prefer to spend more time examining a new smell than one they already know.
So the experiment was to expose the mice to different essential oil scents.
This led them to find a completely new pathway running between the AON and the hippocampus (where memories are formed) that no-one knew existed before.
What happened was that if this pathway was damaged, then the mice would return over and over to what should have been familiar smells and treated them as if they had never smelt them before. It was as if their memories had been erased.
Protocols are now being developed to use this as a cheap and easy way to test for Alzheimers early.
Can Putting Essential Oil for Memory and Focus Make A Difference If You Put Them on The Skin?
I treated a lady with a really bad dog bite this week, and she is still finding it too hard to straighten it after the tendons have been repaired. She rubbed her oil and I said to her, if it's not helping enough in a week, I’ll add some frankincense into it (helps elasticity in the tendons``. She replied, “yes, but this can’t help what’s going on inside though, can it?”
The complete opposite is true. Essential oils work incredibly well “on the inside” and especially in the brain.
The skin is a semipermeable organ (think how it lets sweat out). Essential oil molecules are small enough to absorb through skin pores, to feed into the bloodstream. There they circulate around the body to the parts that need them. Many of these molecules are small enough to pass through the blood brain barrier. They can then find their way to the limbic system to start influencing the brain..
How Long Does it Take for Essential Oils for Memory and Focus To Work?
When we breathe essential oils for memory and focus it takes about five minutes to start changing the mental faculties. It takes around 20 minutes for them to absorb through the skin and into the bloodstream. Clearly, this would also apply for using essential oils for memory and focus in massage oil treatments, or creams and lotions too.
The Overall Picture of Essential Oils for Memory and Focus
The frustrating thing about aromatic research is that you rarely find out stuff, unless you go looking for it. The subject is so wide now, with researchers being interested in what essential oils will do medically, what they can do to preserve food, how they might be able to tackle the mosquitoes issue…it’s impossible to keep up with it all. It had not really ever occurred to me that people might even be researching this too.
But, about two years ago, a friend of mine from school contacted me and asked if I could help her. She was studying for her degree, and she was using essential oils to try and help her concentrate but she was entirely overwhelmed. She wasn’t sleeping, her revision wasn't going in, and far from being relaxed by the oils, she felt really hyper. Was there anything I could do?
So I jumped on a call and listened to the protocols she was using. She’d found really good information about essential oils for memory and focus on the internet. What had got lost in the equation was what I call energetics. It had never occurred to me that this could happen, because my training was all done with an essential oil in my hand. I have always had a database of reference of how my body feels when I interact with an oil.
What Do You Want Your Essential Oils for Memory and Focus To Do?
When I talk about thinking about energetics first, what I mean is, putting all the scientific data about essential oils for memory and focus aside and concentrating on “How does this oil make me feel?”
This might seem like an extremely simplistic approach, but if you think about it, most of the essential oils for memory and focus are stimulating.
Their job is to make you more alert, to become hyper focused and interested in what you are doing. Some will make your brain process faster, and others stimulate your memory to recall things faster.
Sounds like the perfect preparation for exams, doesn't it?
Of course, it is!
But not at 2am when you are trying to sleep, it’s not. And sleep is vital to helping your memories bed in.
So we really want to consider what time of day it is before we choose our oils.
It’s important to remember that not all the essential oils for memory and focus need to wake you up. But likewise, the idea that you will remember more if you are calmer doesn’t always follow logic with oils too. That really surprised me when I discovered this.
Finally, essential oils affect how fast our brains process information, and altering brain waves can also improve learning. So, for example the fastest frequency of brainwaves are beta waves and these are responsible for focus, concentration and analytical thinking.
Smelling Essential Oils Improves Memory by 226% in Older Adults
Actually, a very small study published later this year suggests that inhaling essential oils for a couple of hours before bed might even protect our brains and help our memories long term. Since there were only 23 people in the study, it’s too small to draw conclusions but a six month long trial on older adults, showed that inhaling essential oils for two hours before bed improved their memories by 226%.
What’s useful to the likes of you and I, is this study was done on people who had no cognitive impairment, the chances are the same could be true for you and me.
The subjects were given a range of cognitive tests to assess a variety of cognitive functions; memory, working memory, attention switching, and planning. The main idea of the testing though, was to see if people could remember words better or not.
Initially, the research initially pointed to the benefits of smelling around 80 odors a day, but it was deemed too difficult to maintain this. So instead, they were given a diffuser and asked to rotate seven different essential oils, one each evening.
The oils were rose, orange, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, and lavender. When they went to sleep, the diffuser would release the fragrance of the chosen oil into the air, then it would automatically shut down after two hours. A different scent each night was meant to register as “new” in the brain, to keep it engaged.
What Did They Find?
Brain imaging showed that a brain pathway called the left uncinate fasciculus was much healthier in those who had been using the oils than those who had not .The pathway passes information back and forth between the temporal lobe and frontal lobe;
It has been suggested that the uncinate fasciculus allows mnemonic representations stored in the temporal lobe to guide decision making in the frontal lobe. (“Let me sleep on it”.)
Mnemonic representations allow people to re-experience past events or simulate future scenarios by integrating episodic features from memories (Ah yes, what about when that happened before). (Woo, 2023)
What are the Best Essential Oils for Memory and Focus
If you are studying, and you want to keep your mind alert, choose rosemary oil. This is probably best used in the morning or early afternoon, rather than the evening. It’s a great essential oil for helping information go in, for refreshing the mind, but it might not be tremendous for the exam itself.
Let’s take a look at the science.
Rosemary is Neuroprotective, Reduces Mental Fatigue and Improves Memory
In 2004, a study was done to investigate whether rosemary essential oil could protect rats with memory loss. Their memory was injured using a drug called scopolamine. Scopolomine is used to create learning deficits in rats. Rosemary essential oil was injected into their bellies 30 minutes before they did their training exercises in a maze. This happened repeatedly over five consecutive days. At the end of the study, it showed that the rosemary essential oil had protected the rats against the neurodegeneration, their memories were intact and they had continued to learn and remember things as if there had been no injury. (Hosseinzadeh, 2004)
Some of the more interesting studies into essential oils for memory and focus are those that compare and contrast the effects of different oils. What are the differences of using lavender versus rosemary essential oils for memory and focus?
Rosemary for Speed of Memory
A study done in 2003 by the University of Northumbria (done on humans) compared the effects of these two essential oils for memory and focus against a control substance. These were lavender and rosemary. For ease, I have split the information of these into their own sections.
The experiment showed that rosemary made the subjects more alert, and enhanced the overall quality of their memory. But rosemary impaired the speed of recall compared to controls. This might be because the subjects who had inhaled rosemary were more content than those who had not. (Moss, 2009)
Rosemary for Accuracy
Another trial done in 1998 also compared lavender and rosemary but measured the effects in a different way. This time adults were given one of the two essential oils for memory and focus and were asked to inhale them for three minutes.
The rosemary group showed reduced frontal alpha and beta power, which signifies they were more alert. Their anxiety scores were lower and they felt more relaxed. Then the were give some mathematical sums to do. The results of the rosemary group were much quicker, but they did not get as many accurate answers as they had had without essential oil. (Diego, 1998)
So, fantastic for using in the couple of days before the test, but you want your get the information to your brain super quick on the day, and you want it accurate don’t you?
So use rosemary for revision in the mornings and afternoons, but don’t take it with you to the exam.
Recent scientific evidence suggests that the fragrance of peppermint improves learning and may be able to help reverse mild memory impairments.
It has been proven that inhaling peppermint improves patients’ by influencing (AchE) in the body (Sun, 2013).
AchE is an enzyme that makes acetylcholine.
It plays a crucial role in learning and memory.
It is generally believed that AchE helps brain nerves to send information and makes information move faster.
Increasing AchE levels can enhance memory ability and improve brain function. (Huang, 2022) Conversely, the decline in learning and memory abilities is directly related to a downturn in activity by acetylcholinergic neurons.
So peppermint is one of the best essential oils for memory and focus because it really gives the brain a thorough workout.
The study showed that the different color papers made the peppermint essential oil activate different parts of the brain. It was like a director. Different parts of the brain, of course, do different things.
Peppermint and Red, Blue or White
This time, participants were given the essential oil to smell, while looking at a blank piece of paper, a white one, a blue one or a red one (and no, I can’t decide how a blank one differs from a white one, either!)
In all cases, the peppermint activated alpha and beta brainwaves, which is what we want to see. Participants are alert, and their minds are open to information.
In this trial, 32 sensors were put onto the head to record activity at the prefrontal (Fp), frontal (F), central (C), parietal (P), and occipital (O) regions of the brain.
Let’s do the two most obvious first.
The parietal lobe is home to the brain's primary somatic sensory cortex, a region where the brain interprets input from other areas of the body. It informs information received about taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell.
The Occipital takes and processes information about what we see.
The PreFrontal cortex (PFC) regulates our emotions, thoughts, and actions via extensive connections with other regions of the brain. It creates a “mental sketch pad” (to coin the phrase used by psychologist, Alan Baddeley) that can collate information in the absence of environmental stimulation
This is sometimes known as “ working memory”. It retains information about things that have just happened. It also retrieves long-term stored information then applies this knowledge to our thoughts, emotions and behavior.
The PFC is responsible for stopping us from acting inappropriately, but also protects us from distractions from the outer world.
It is thanks to the PFC that we can properly respond to changing environments, to shift our attention from one thing to another and to make decisions based on the information that we receive.
Perhaps most interestingly, the PFC monitors errors, and it’s what gives us the sensation that we may have done something wrong. (It’d be interesting to see how this worked with rosemary and all those mathematical errors, wouldn’t it? )
Your frontal lobe handles many abilities, including simple and complex processing of information. Logic, reasoning, judgment, decision-making and creativity all fall into this category.
Your frontal lobe controls your understanding of social norms and helps determine what you should and shouldn’t do or say.
Your frontal lobe also helps you learn and recall information later when you need it.
Essential Oils for Memory and Focus and Color
The participants were shown to be emotionally calm looking at their white picture after sniffing the peppermint. The prefrontal area of the brain showed an increase in the activity of all four brainwaves, demonstrating that their attention was more concentrated than in the blank group.
There was more activity in the Frontal and Parietal portions of the brain.
The participant’s mental and cognitive states were awake and calm.
They were able to focus on specific tasks, undistracted by external stimuli, and their brains did not tire easily. While this was happening, the theta waves in occipital were diminished, so visual cues were not as easily picked up.
To me, this suggests that if you expect your exam paper to be printed on white paper…sniffing peppermint essential oil might be a great plan.
You are going to hope the walls aren’t painted red though.
Being exposed to red-colored environments can produce anxiety and unstable emotions. Red is often chosen as a color for restaurants, because it creates a sensation of urgency and the idea that time is passing faster.
Also, most of us have experienced how toothpaste makes our moths feel cold. That's because peppermint interacts with “cold receptors” that send information about temperature.
The trial suggested that inhaling peppermint might make you feel more tense and uncomfortable by the heat of your study room or examination hall, if it is also seeing red.
Likewise, before you take the top off your bottle, make sure there’s not too much blue around you.
Hospitals are decorated in blue because cool environments can provide a sense of tranquility and calm.
The blue greatly increased delta waves, relaxing the participants and making them sleepier.
In a cool environment, peppermint essential oil induces a sleepy state and relaxing effect on the body, and has no discernible effect on increasing concentration. (Iriti, 2022)
Citrus oils are fantastic for mood and for memory. However, we now understand that after about an hour, the mind no longer smells them any more.
Because they are invigorating and stimulating, they are best used in the morning. An added bonus is that inhaling limonene also speeds metabolism which may be good for weight loss. It’s all good!)
I always use lemon essential oil when I want to write something exotic and exciting. I call it the story teller’s oil. Fantastic if you are doing creative writing, or have something gory to write for history.
In 1987, it was proven that Lemon oil facilitates word recall. (Berg, 1987)
In 1993, an experiment where they piped lemon oil through the air conditioning significantly reduced key entry errors among video display operators (Manley, 1993).
Both these suggest that lemon essential oil inhalation enhances working memory function and concentration.
Want a Rodent Experiment?
Lemon essential oil reversed scopolamine induced amnesia in both stressed and unstressed rats. (Falls, 2018)
Interestingly, when I was at school (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth) we were asked to use lemon colored paper for our revision too, because there was research that the brain feels happier when it sees yellow.
Lemon and yellow paper…brilliant for revision…fantastic for exams. (White paper will do).
As ever there is a codicil.
Lemon essential oil also makes you faster at making decisions…just check them before you rush into anything.
Ok So Those were your daytime essential oils for memory and focus. But when evening comes, you need to put those away.
You can still revise, but use lavender and vetiver. In the bath, diffusers, massage oils, whatever…what’s important that you allow your brain waves to settle so you will be able to sleep.
These oils still help you concentrate and remember, just in a different way.
Remember the rosemary trial earlier, when I said they were more alert, but had slower recall and made mistakes with their sums?
The lavender group demonstrated increased beta power on their brain scans and reported feeling more relaxed.
When they were given mathematical calculations to do, they were able to do them faster and more accurately after inhaling lavender oils.
But lavender is also the oil most likely to send you to sleep in an exam…
So reading at the end of the day with lavender is a good plan. It will help you sleep and retain information well.
Inhaling lavender before you start your exam is also a good call. The brain is relaxed, calm and able to receive information. When you go into the exam though, change to vetiver, lemon or peppermint.
The next part is taken from my book about Vetiver.
A 2012 study in Japan focused on the effects of vetiver on subjects whilst they were performing a visual task. The objective was to ascertain whether it was possible for them to hold focus for a longer time and to improve response speeds.
Subjects were given five minutes to relax with their eyes closed, then 30 minutes doing the task, then a further 5 minutes recovery time. During the 30 minutes work, odorant molecules of vetiver were delivered via a fan mechanism into the room. The subjects were measured with ECG and EEG monitors throughout their challenge. The delivery of the oils was tested at two doses, 1g for low dose and 30g for high dose and then also a control group. The results for the two dose groups were very similar in most ways, except the high dose group were able to report a perception of a pleasant scent, whereas the control group were not. Since perceiving a foul smell makes you hyper vigilant this was seen as relevant.
The tests showed that the blood volume at the front of the brain was decreased, which is a sign of the body being sedated. The results of P(th) test– the number of true hits minus the number of incorrect ones - showed that the high dose group performance was improved by 5.6% and the low dose by 3.6% in comparison to the control group. Response times were improved too. The low dose had a 3.7% increase in speed in comparison to the control, and the high dose had a further 2.5% increase on that!
The Importance of Sleep When Using Essential Oils for Memory and Focus
The part of the brain that controls sleep is the thalamus. Most nerves connect to the thalamus, hence why noise and touch will wake you up. Smell does not, which is why we have smoke alarms, because it will not disturb us.
At the same time, smelling something as you sleep deepens slow-wave sleep (Wolfe and Herzberg, 1996; Goel et al., 2005) which is the part of the sleep cycle where memories become embedded. This is also the most restful portion of the sleep cycle so people usually report feeling invigorated and refreshed after nighttime olfactory exposure (Goel et al., 2005).
A Cautionary Tale about Ylang Ylang
I came across this research into how ylang ylang affects us yesterday, and it really got me thinking about the teenage me. I used to love how relaxed and confident I used to feel when I was wearing ylang ylang essential oil to school. Somehow, my chat was more confident and I was a lot more comfortable in my skin.
It was all good, I thought. Turns out, I might have been making it harder for myself than I needed to. Considering that school was not only a place to snare lads (no, no it isn’t y’all…) Ylang ylang essential oil makes us feel calmer, but it slows our processing skills and makes it harder for us to remember things.
Hmmm, this is starting to make a great deal of sense to me. Because for a long time, I have been puzzled about how someone as studious as I am could have struggled at school. The problem was that things just would not stick…I wonder, if it could have been the ylang ylang oil?
How To Use Essential Oils for Memory and Focus
- Don’t put lemon oil in the bath. I did it once. It was not good and I shall never do it again. Very irritating to the skin.
- Vetiver oil is likely to kill your diffuser. It is so thick and gummy. It can burn it out.
- Otherwise knock yourself out. I usually wear my oils on an essential oil pendant. One to two drops is enough.
- Add them to the bath, to roller balls and your diffuser.
- If you are using a diffuser, turn it off every couple of hours to give yourself a break, otherwise it can give you a headache or make you feel nauseous.
When you sit down to your revision ask yourself, how do I want to feel? Then choose your essential oils for memory and focus around that. Feel motivated and focused with lemon, peppermint or rosemary, and calm right down to give those memories the best opportunity to bed in when you sleep.