Comps Profile: Erwin Swaray ’16 examines how odor impacts memory

23 February 2016

Senior Erwin Swaray, a psychology major and neuroscience concentrator from Maple Grove, Minn., vividly remembers the time he ran at a track tournament at the University of Minnesota when he was younger, and was outrun by a girl. What is most unforgettable about that moment is not the fact that he lost, but the particular odor of a tree blooming with pink flower blossoms that he remembers seeing and smelling before the race.

Since then, whenever he smells that same odor it takes him back to that time at the track meet. “It got me interested in how odor affects memory,” explains Swaray, who is basing his Senior Comps project on it. “I’ve been able to create an experiment on how well you are able to recall according to what odor you smell.”

The topic of his project is to examine the influence of an odor’s emotional salience when it acts as a retrieval cue for semantic memory. In other words, he intends to see if “emotional” odors influence, and even possibly enhance, a person’s memory when recalling a specific event. For example, in Swaray’s case, whether the smell of that particular flowering tree did, in fact, help him recall his race more easily or not.

To find out the results of his hypothesis, Swaray conducted two separate experiments: a pilot study and the main study. He first tested 10 people for which scents evoked their strongest memory, meaning what smells proved to be the most emotional ones, based on its familiarity, intensity, and pleasantness. Then he tested 40 people in his main study by making them recall pairs of words that they have seen while being exposed to different odors. The more pairs the subjects would remember, the more memory-evoking the odor proves to be.

One of his main study subjects, fellow senior Khuaten Maaneb de Macedo, a biology major from Madison, Wisc., assumed that meanings of different words would impact her memory and didn’t expect scent to have much impact. “I feel like it may have hindered my memory a little bit because I was trying to figure out what exactly the smell was,” she reports. “I know and I love coconut fragrances, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

Through his pilot study, Swaray found out that despite individual differences, the smell of peppermint tended to evoke the most emotions from people, while coconut had the least impact. His most emotional odor was the smell of popcorn. Through his main study, he discovered that the most emotional odor (mean value of the data was 9.5) led to greater recall than the least emotional odor (mean value was 8.7), but the difference between the memory recall of the odors was not big enough to draw any significant conclusions. However, Swaray believes that if his study was conducted in a larger scale, involving over 50 participants, he would have been able to see a greater trend and do further research on how odors impact memory. He hopes that it could even help students to study better and more effectively. “If those odors can be used as a cognitive device when you are studying for a test, maybe you smell a particular odor and that’s going to help you recall the questions for the test better,” notes Swaray.

After graduating this spring, Swaray hopes to work as a pharmacy technician and enroll in a pharmacy school, after taking more courses in chemistry and biology, to study about drugs and their effects.