During my freshman year of high school, students in my school would eat a certain flavor gum while studying and then eat it again when taking a test because it was said to help recall or learn things easily. It was typically gum because it was easier to hide than a bag of chips and it was easily accessible. It’s common knowledge that we have strong ties and associations to specific scents or sounds. For example, if you had a childhood blanket with a particular smell, it wouldn’t be hard to associate it with a specific memory if you smelled it now. Certain stimuli bring back certain memories or images. Does this work when we don’t have emotional ties to something? In other words, information that isn’t easily retained in the brain, such as concepts learned in class?
Taste is actually a combination of smell and flavor (salty, sweet, umami, bitter, sour). As a matter of fact, our brain and taste receptors are directly linked. When our taste buds are stimulated, their nerve endings activate and send signals to the brain stem, which then relay the information accumulated to the brain- specifically the thalamus and the cerebral cortex- and make us conscious of taste. Not only are nerve endings in your mouth being stimulated, but your brain is as well once it receives this information. In the same manner, taking into account the proximity of a person’s olfactory bulb to the amygdala and hippocampus, it’s not hard to see why certain smells can trigger certain emotions or memories.
It’s been shown that there’s an association between the sense of taste and memory. One of the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease is loss of taste. In an experiment conducted published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, scientists found a slight connection between people with Parkinson’s and altered senses of taste. Scientists accounted for third variables such as subjects’ levels of cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and caffeine intake, among other things. In this experiment specifically, although the results were overall slight, we can say that there is an association between sense of smell and memory– whether it be due to correlations or third variables.
In a study conducted in 2006, scientists asked a group of ninety-three adults to recollect memories with one of three cues: a word, picture, or odor. Their study revealed that these people had a strong association to childhood memories with odors, whereas they attributed early adulthood memories to sights and sounds. Given that there is a link between the senses of smell and taste, we can correlate these with memories. However, this experiment shows us that the memories associated with taste and smell were childhood ones, which doesn’t really contribute to the statement that eating a particular food will help you retain memory better when studying for tests.
Ultimately, even though there is a strong relation between scents and memories, I don’t think that trying to temporarily memorize something with a certain taste works. This link between tastes, scents, and memories only works with either childhood memories or life-changing events. There are also a lot of third variables involved in this experiment. A person’s ability to retain information, how strong the flavors are, or any other underlying factors could easily influence it. However, if you’re someone that has tried this method before and succeeded, you’re probably an anomaly. If you’re someone who’s interested in this and would like to try it out, go ahead! Maybe you could write a blog post about it and publish your findings. Next time you have a test, chew a certain flavor of gum during studying and when you actually take the test. Make your own controlled experiment!