Coffee Brain Boost: Smell Alone Can Yield Higher Math Test Scores, Researchers Say

Drinking coffee seems to have its advantages. A few cups a day can protect the heart. Research has shown that people who drink coffee live longer, healthier lives with fewer cases of diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes. A new study now demonstrates that improved cognitive function can also be added to the list of benefits.

It turns out that just the smell of coffee could make people more alert and energetic. Researchers from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey found that people exposed to this scent perform better at math on the Graduate Management Aptitude Test, or GMAT, an aptitude test required by many business schools, according to the study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

“It's not just that the coffee-like scent helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting,” an author of the study, Adriana Madzharov, said in a statement. “But they also thought they would do better, and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance.”

This means that even smelling a coffee-like scent, which has no caffeine in it, produces a similar effect to that of drinking coffee, suggesting that a placebo effect can come from just the scent of the hot beverage.

To investigate how the smell of coffee might impact test scores, the researchers gave a 10-question GMAT algebra test to about 100 undergraduate business students.

The researchers filled one of the testing rooms with the smell of coffee before leading the first group into the room to take the test. A second control group took the same test, but without the presence of the soothing aroma.

Those who got a whiff of coffee seemed to experience a boost in mental function and scored significantly higher on the test.

A follow-up survey after the quiz found that the participants believed that they would feel more alert in the presence of a coffee scent and that exposure to this smell would increase their analytical reasoning.

This leads the researchers to believe that coffee-like scents can have a similar placebo effect on other types of performance, such as verbal reasoning.

“Olfaction is one of our most powerful senses," said Madzharov. "Employers, architects, building developers, retail space managers and others can use subtle scents to help shape employees' or occupants' experience with their environment. It's an area of great interest and potential.”

0717-coffeecup A coffee with milk is served in bakery in the village of Vilassar de Dalt, near Barcelona, on Sunday. Researchers found that just the smell of coffee alone could make people more alert and energetic. Albert Gea/REUTERS