Stimulating your senses while studying can improve retention. Why? Because the more you use your sense of taste, hearing, smell, sight, and touch while hitting the books, the more you’re stimulating various parts of your brain at the same time. Creating a multisensory learning environment, in which you stimulate one or more senses while writing an essay, preparing for exams, or studying for a test, could potentially help improve your recall.
The Relationship Between Senses and Memories
The senses not only play a role in how we experience the world; they’re also linked to memory and retention. For example, think about the last time you heard a song that you hadn’t heard since high school. When it showed up on your playlist, did you find yourself transported back to the time you first heard it, remembering who you were with, what you were doing, and what you were feeling in that moment? This indicates that the five senses are an important part of the learning experience.
The reason for this might be rooted in science, according to psychologist Dr. Richard E. Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. The brain takes in and processes information from multiple channels, the theory states. This allows learners to process new material in both their sensory and visual memory. Although most of Dr. Mayer’s research focused on audio and visual channels — such as instructional videos and models that use charts, pictures, and diagrams — multisensory learning models may be helpful when applied to the other senses as well.
For example, have you ever had a food that you hadn’t had since you were a child (or since that summer you spent backpacking across Europe), and with that first bite, your brain is flooded with pictures and emotions from the last time you tasted it? Whether you’re spending a day at the beach, at your kids’ soccer tournament, or studying at your local coffee shop, the scent of a particular sunscreen, the taste of a beverage you were drinking, or once again hearing the music you were listening to can trigger strong memories of a snapshot in time.
Tips to Use the 5 Senses in Study Sessions
There are a number of ways to incorporate sensory experience into your study sessions. From crafting the perfect playlist to preparing a plate of healthy snacks, below are just a few of the ways you can stimulate your five senses while learning.
Elite athletes understand that fueling their bodies with the right foods can help optimize their performance. Eating the right foods is equally important for students while studying. Data suggests that while sugary foods, refined carbohydrates (e.g., potato chips and candy), and foods that are high in trans fats (e.g., fried onion rings) can hinder studying efforts, foods such as nuts, apples and nut butter, berries, and cheese — i.e., brain-healthy foods — are fantastically healthy study snacks.
Numerous studies have shown that listening to music is associated with lower levels of stress, boredom, and improved concentration, which is why many people stream music while exercising, working, and studying. The types of music that motivate people are largely individual. Ambient sounds, instrumentals, and lo-fi — among others — can all find a place in the best playlists for focus and memory.
Odor-driven memories are real. Our olfactory bulbs have a direct connection to the areas of our brains that are linked to memory and cognition. Says a 2020 Scientific American article: “Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection between the regions of the brain linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell may explain why our brain learns to associate smells with certain emotional memories.” Sage, lavender, and lemon are among the scents that may help boost focus and productivity.
Anyone who has ever spent hours staring at a computer screen (or with their nose in a book) understands the value of taking some time to give their eyes a break. Stepping away from your studies — whether it’s for five minutes or a half-hour — can make you feel refreshed. Remember, you don’t need to take drastic steps to change your scenery. Taking a quick bike ride, taking your dog for a walk, and giving yourself a 15-minute break to practice yoga outside are among the numerous study break ideas that you can choose from.
Fiddling with small toys — such as fidget spinners, stress balls, and Play-Doh — can reduce tension and relieve stress, according to the American Institute of Stress. Some companies have started to incorporate aromatherapy into stress toys, which can help users stimulate their olfactory and tactile senses at the same time.
Create a Sensory-Stimulating Learning Environment
Scientists have yet to produce hard data that links studying while stimulating the senses to higher levels of academic achievement. However, activities that help relieve stress and burnout while studying can be helpful.
Are you an aspiring adult learner who is interested in either starting or completing your degree? Find out more about the online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs offered by Maryville University that can help you take the next step in your career.
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