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The power of your nose

From improving focus to relieving stress, how certain scents can affect your brain

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

June 12, 2012

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I was recently asked to play on the company softball team. As soon as I said "yes", I was overcome with fear that my 6-year hiatus from hitting a ball with a bat would put me at a disadvantage.

Within minutes, I received an email from the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago saying they've released a study showing that the smell of jasmine improved the batting skills for some Major League Baseball players.

Coincidence? Absolutely. But I had to call and see what this study was all about. My softball career depended on it.

"We took several members of the Chicago White Sox and gave them arm bands that were saturated with the scent of jasmine," said Dr. Alan Hirsch, who presented his study to the Association of Chemoreception Sciences this April. "The players were independently assessed regarding the mechanics of their swings — including trajectory, ball flight, bat speed and bat swing zone. Compared to the no-odor trials, jasmine significantly improved all batting parameters."

Hirsch was inspired to study the use of jasmine with athletes several years ago when he was testing how quickly his subjects could catch a falling stick. "Everyone who smelled jasmine beforehand had a faster reaction time and caught the stick sooner," he said.

Hirsch also tested how jasmine would affect someone's bowling score for a study that he published in 2006.

"We had several bowlers wear surgical masks with the scent of jasmine, and several wear masks without a scent," he said. "The players with the jasmine-scented masks greatly improved their bowling scores as opposed to those who had no scent in their masks."

So what is it about jasmine that helps improve a ball player's swing or a bowler's ability to knock down the pins? Hirsch said jasmine activates the part of the brain that helps you focus and makes you awake and alert.

"And all of the players liked the scent which improves your mood and that could help your performance," he said. "It also really seems to improve hand-eye coordination. So this can apply to so many different activities or professions. Golf, tennis, sewing, knitting, even for a neurosurgeon or someone struggling with handwriting, the smell of jasmine could be very helpful."

So after I put jasmine oil on my shopping list, I thought it would be useful to ask what other smells would come in handy for everyday ailments.

"We've been studying what smells and tastes do for the brain for over 30 years," Hirsch said. Here is a list of his "must haves":

To reduce stress: "We found cucumber and green apple reduces the amount of stress and anxiety people feel."

Relaxation: Vanilla and lavender have a calming affect and can help people sleep better too."

Improve learning ability: "A mixed floral smell improved learning speed and also helped people do better on tests," he said.

Increase your libido: "This differed for men and women," he said. "For men it's a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie, and doughnuts. And Good and Plenty (candy) and cucumber aroused women.

Decrease your libido: "Prohibitants for women were cherries, the smell of barbecue and men's cologne." As for prohibitants with men, Dr. Hirsch said, "There were none. They experienced sexual arousal with every odor we tested."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel