Rosemary improves memory


Rosemary improves memory according to data presented at a meeting of the British Psychological Society.  The study involved memory tests on 60 subjects in a room filled with the scent of rosemary.  The scent helped.

Aromatherapy is a bit out of fashion nowadays, and most of the claims made on its behalf  were based on nothing more than fanciful thinking.  But it turns out that the basic premise can be demonstrated.  What you smell can affect your physiology in beneficial ways.  This isn’t a license for people to simply make stuff up, but it does suggest that looking for other beneficial effects from this and other plants might be fruitful.

How does it work?  We don’t know.  The researchers are on the case and have already established that the blood of the test subjects contained higher levels of a compound called 1,8-cineole.  This is a member of my favourite chemical family the terpenes.  (Have a look at my post about vanillin for my panegyric to the terpenes.)  I wouldn’t put anything past a terpene to be honest.  I would not be at all surprised to find that the terpenes in an essential oil might have some effect on the brain that bucks it up a bit.

I hope more researchers pile into this area.  I’d love to know more about what is going on.

5 thoughts on “Rosemary improves memory”

  1. Colin – not enough characters in Twitter to really get underneath this one.
    And before I do let me state my motivation for being so picky with this – I am against bad reporting of science not rosemary which has a lot going for it. In fact I had a long exchange with Helen Tarver via twitter yesterday after I saw the headline. Its the headline that leads people to accept this as fact without looking at the facts supporting it. This gets accepted as dogma and myths prevail.

    The work quoted (and I have looked unsuccessfully for a fuller description of the study) compares rosemary to “No aroma”.
    There is evidence of the “priming” effect of aroma on perception, heightened awareness etc . which may have a secondary impact on recall.
    So the study substantiates this for aroma generally using the specific example of rosemary. The presence of terpenes in the blood once again may be a general physiological response to essential oils, so once again would not offer much help without proven mode of action.
    It is then the design of the study that I take to task – assuming the objective was to show that Rosemary specifically enhanced memory.
    On the plus side “no aroma control” – great !
    On the minus side no other control – not so great.
    Other control could have been alternative stimuli – bright colour; a walk around the garden before taking the test etc etc
    OR other essential oils; thyme; lavender etc….
    OR stimuli which work against memory call (eg noise) with and without rosemary.

    The outcome would then be judged by comparative qualitative and/or quantitative recall.
    This would have been far more informative and would have addressed the need to bette understand the role of essential oils and rosemary in particular in fundamental brain activity.
    So is it bad science or bad reporting? I suspect a bit of both, which is a shame as I think there is a lot of untapped potential in some of these traditional medicines.
    Rant over!

    1. I see what you are saying and don’t disagree scientifically speaking. But I think we should cut the researchers a bit of slack here. First off the design. Yes it would be great to have more controls and more variables under examination. But every factor you add would reduce the power of the test, statistically speaking. They might have used a ‘better’ design but ended up with no statistically significant results. Assuming their resources were limited, they might well have been very wise to keep things simple.

      As to reporting, again I don’t disagree that the reporting in the mainstream media, and this blog post come to that, is simplistic. But I challenge you to come up with a headline that is both scientifically rigorous and would also attract the average human to actually read it. There is a good reason that scientific papers only get read by anoraks like you and me.

  2. I agree completely with Steve here I’m afraid. I immediately thought “priming” and came here to say this. One additional thing to add – correlation does not equal causation. It’s fallacy to say “Rosemary improves memory” based on this study. Sorry Colin 🙁

    1. I think the amount you are prepared to infer from a particular study is more a matter of taste than logic Kat. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it doesn’t preclude it either. And giving something a name isn’t the same as explaining it either. Yes this study might turn out to be no more than an example of priming. But we don’t understand priming very well – who is to say that rosemary won’t be discovered to be a particularly good priming agent? The conclusion that rosemary improves memory may not be well founded and may later be shown to be false, but this study is at least consistent with it.

      Have you heard the old joke about different inferences from the same data? A biologist, a chemist and a physicist are walking in Wales. They pass a field with a sheep in it. The biologist observes ‘it looks like the sheep in Wales are white’. The chemist says ‘you are going a bit far, all we can really say is that there is at least on field in Wales which has a white sheep in it’. The physicist tuts, and says ‘well actually all we know for sure is that there is at least one field in Wales that contains a sheep, and at least half of which is white.’

  3. This article is very interesting. I never thought that aromatherapy can enhance memory specifically using rosemary. This claim is not really proven but it’s a good subject for research.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.