Hot on the scent of lost memories

7th March 2003 at 00:00
After a visit to the odorous Viking museum, psychology students test whether smell is linked to recollection. Karen Faux reports

WHERE do memories go when they are lost? Are they destined to be forever inaccessible or can certain cues - such as smell - retrieve them?

Current research points to the fact that smell is one of the most potent triggers for recall. Pleasant aromas such as coffee, perfume or baking bread often have the power to revive the feel-good factor while less enjoyable smells may be equally evocative but in a less pleasurable sense.

This fascinating relationship is one which students at John Leggott College in Scunthorpe have just attempted to measure as part of their Edexcel AS-level psychology coursework.

Initially devised by psychology head Howie Jarved, the project linked the memory of a day out for 180 students to the nearby Jorvik Viking Centre in York with associated smells created by the museum.

Students were tested on how much information they had absorbed on their visit while being subjected to the smells they had experienced as part of the centre's recreation of Viking life.

The aim, said Jarved, was to create a practical experiment that would give the students plenty of scope for discussion and provide some interesting ideas about how human memory worked within the parameters of the study.

With the number of psychology students having swelled in recent years, there is a growing need within the department to find ways of applying the subject to real life. Clearly, students need to be able to move beyond textbook theory and involve themselves in hands-on research they can shape themselves.

"The course is very heavy on content and they tend to get bogged down in the academic work," Jarved said. "We wanted to direct their research to the area of memory within the coursework specification and at the same time encourage them to analyse data based on real experience."

While there may be no obvious link between Vikings and the psychology syllabus, Jarved was confident he could create one. The priority was to give students a memorable experience, which they could then test themselves. The fact that the Jorvic Viking Centre was nearby was an added bonus.

Students spent a whole day exploring the centre, which is renowned for its city-wide portrayal of 10th-century businesses, backyards, bedrooms and even rubbish. Smell is a vital part of the sensory experience and, as visitors wander through the narrow streets, they pick up the pleasurable scents of woodburning stoves and fruit markets while also being assaulted by the stench of farmyards and cesspits.

After the visit, students and teachers collaborated on designing questionnaires, asking respondents to recall various facts about Viking life presented by the centre. Chemicals used on site to evoke Viking-age smells were then used to impregnate the questionnaire papers themselves and these were divided into batches containing no smell, pleasant smell and stink.

While it might have been expected that the questionnaires containing the smells would provide memory cues for the right answers, in fact the reverse proved the case. Jarved reports that over 30 per cent of the correct answers were provided by students who had no smells to prompt them while only 18 per cent answered correctly with the help of the scented sheets.

With 167 students responding, there was extensive data for students to report on. "It was a very good exercise in analysing a large sample and, in answer to the question of whether cues can help everybody remember things, most students decided that there was no automatic correlation," said Jarved.

The reasons for this were varied. Some students decided they had been more preoccupied with having a good time on their day out while others thought that the smells themselves proved a distraction in the museum, rather than a focus for attention. The fact that the centre was noisy was also deemed a bar to the effectiveness of a memory cue such as smell.

According to Jarved, the experiment has encouraged students to think more deeply about the contextual meaning of memory cues. "Cues are more likely to work effectively when they relate to a particular emotional state," he said.

"In the case of the trip to the Viking museum, many students felt they were not taking in as much information as they thought because they were preoccupied with having a good time, and in the light of this the smells were less significant."

Next year there will be a peak number of 600 students enrolled for the A-level course and Jarved is determined to enrich the syllabus with more practical experiments of this kind. He wants to encourage students to think about ways in which their own research can challenge or support established theories.

As he points out, the subject of recall is one that is close to every student's heart: "Many are hopeful that if they conduct their surveys rigorously enough they will discover new cues to prompt memory when it comes to sitting exams," he said. "It is certainly something for them to think about."

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