March 14, 2002
By David Derbyshire
SHAKESPEARE and the ancient Egyptians were right: rosemary can
improve your memory, researchers have shown.
In a series of experiments, essential oil from the herb increased alertness and enhanced long-term memory by around 15 per cent
The same tests also showed that lavender - used by many people as a sedative and relaxant - slows down the brain and impairs some types of memory.
Rosemary has been linked to memory and fidelity since written records began. The ancient Egyptians used it in wedding and funeral rituals, while Banke's herbal, written in 1525, advises: "smell of it oft, and it shall keep thee youngly".
The most famous literary reference comes in Hamlet when Ophelia declares: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance: pray, love, remember." It is used in modern-day herbal medicine as a mild painkiller and for migraines and digestive problems.
A team of psychologists at Northumbria University, Newcastle, tested the effects of essential oils from rosemary and lavender on memory, attention and mood.
Dr Mark Moss, who presented the findings yesterday at the British Psychology Society conference in Blackpool, said: "It is ingrained in the human psyche that plants and aromas have benefits. The benefit of aromas have been left to alternative practitioners and nobody has spent a great deal of time scientifically assessing their effects."
The researchers divided 132 volunteers into three groups. Each volunteer was asked to sit in a booth and carry out a standard series of memory and attention tests. Two groups sat in booths sprayed with lavender or rosemary oil, while the third control group sat in a booth with no fragrance.
In one of the tests, the volunteers were asked to memorise a list of 15 words, then recall them immediately and after 30 minutes. They were also asked to comment on their mood before and after the tests.
The volunteers were kept in the dark about the reason for the experiment, and were told that it was designed to explore how the tests affected the mood.
Lavender slowed reaction, reduced the volunteers' attention and impaired their working memory - the part of the brain that puts facts "on hold" before storing them in long-term memory. Rosemary enhanced the long-term memory by around 15 per cent, but had no effect on working memory.
"Lavender seems to have a consistent sedative effect," said Dr Moss. "Rosemary's effect was only in the long-term memory." Rosemary made the volunteers more alert, while both herbs increased feelings of contentment.
"Aromas do effect people through pharmacological mechanisms, and they do definitely," said Dr Moss. "Volatile molecules from essential oils can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the nose. The chemicals also stimulate the olfactory nerve in the nose directly, which could have effects on brain functioning," he said.
There was some evidence that rosemary made people "jittery" and so did not increase their reaction times. "What is interesting is the possibility of using Rosemary over a long period to maintain cognitive performance. It could be that a bit more rosemary with lunch maintains a healthy mind throughout life."
From Francis Bacon's "A NATURAL HISTORY"
Experiments in emission of spirits in vapour
"Perfumes do strengthen the brain, as we find in
fume of rosemary
dried. We find in the art of memory that
images visible work better than other conceits. Take orange pills, or
rosemary, and let them infuse half an hour in water. The smell of the
flowers is rather weaker than that of the leaves, as in rosemary
flowers and sweet briar roses. I wish trial to
be made of the drying fume of rosemary.
It is true that some heaths of rosemary will smell a great way into the sea, perhaps twenty miles. It is like, that the brain waxeth fuller upon the full of the moon: and therefore it were good for those what have moist brains and are great drinkers, to take fume of aloes, rosemary about the full of the moon."
This is reproduced from "Who was Shakespeare? the fortnightly
authorship news sheet by Francis Carr on March 26, 2002. To order
Mr. Carr's news service, he can be reached in Brighton ,England,
by tel.- 01273 509 460