I’ve been thinking a lot about smells recently. Not just because I have a son on the cusp of teenagerhood. Have you noticed that certain scented shower gels make it easier to wake up happy? Or that some scents throughout the day can make it easier to focus?

Most of us know that the smell of lavender is calming, citronella keeps bugs at bay and baked bread can increase feelings of wellbeing and prompt us to spend more. So I got to wondering, which scents improve productivity, focus or creativity — if any? Can we use different aromas to hack our day for boosted creativity and productivity? It turns out, we can.

Our brains on fragrance

When a scent wafts up your nostrils, you transport it to the millions of sensory neurons at the back of your nose as you breathe in. Aroma molecules can each activate several different kinds of receptors, some fit these different receptors better than others.

The near-endless combination of ways in which odour molecules interact with our receptors is what enables us to differentiate between so many different scents. Each combination creates a complex neural code that is sent to the olfactory bulb as an electrical signal. Our olfactory system helps us place the scent as ‘fresh bread’ or ‘feet’. The smell information processed by the olfactory system is also sent to your hippocampus and amygdala where it’s then matched with memories and experiences, or tied to new experiences.

All of this happens in a flash. It doesn’t just cause an identification of the smell or recall of memory either. Various studies have shown that smell can impact our heart rate, pupil dilation, muscle tension and more. But it’s not just our bodies that fragrances can change, our brain waves are also influenced by scent. EEG recordings by researchers have shown the effects of a range of fragrances on different brain waves.

Increased theta wave activity was linked to smells of birch tar, jasmine, lavender and lemon. Theta waves indicate drowsiness, daydreaming and creative thinking.

Eucalyptus oil and ammonia cause increases in alpha waves — a frequency associated with cognitive performance, mental coordination, and calm alertness of a kind that supports learning for the brain.

The research was inconclusive on whether the power of a scent caused brain wave activity to be prolonged or more intense.

Given their findings, I’m confident I could find the right scent to enhance different types of work throughout my day. No doubt, you could too.

Enhance productivity

Productivity at work can call on a number of different skills — concentration, problem-solving and memory can all come into play. Depending on what you’re working on, consider these scents for improving your productivity.

Rosemary — research carried out by Northumbria University found that the scent of rosemary could enhance cognition and recall. The researchers suggested rosemary scents used in classrooms could enhance student’s academic attainment.

Peppermint has been found to have a beneficial effect on performance by virtue of increased theta brainwaves. Interestingly, this scent improved accuracy in mental tasks more for women than men.

Cinnamon is a bit of a ‘wonder scent’ found to have a positive impact on neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s also great for enhancing our effectiveness in tasks that require extra attention. A study observing the effects of scent on driving alertness found cinnamon was excellent for enhancing motivation, alertness, decreasing fatigue and stimulating the central nervous system.

Boost creativity

If you’re trying to dream up new products, a solution for a difficult problem, or maybe an unexpected twist for the novel you’re crafting, scents that enhance creativity could help. Creativity is used in so many areas of our lives, you could probably do with one of these aromas floating around on any day.

Lavender’s anxiolytic properties are well known and it’s often used to lower anxiety and stress. Electroencephalography (EEG) results show that it also increases both theta and alpha wave activity in the brain. This serves to increase relaxation and alertness, putting us in an ideal state to step into creative flow.

Tangerine can cause a lifting of mood and help generate feelings of playfulness. Research shows that this citrus scent reduces alpha waves in the brain while increasing beta wave activity. This frequency is most closely associated with focussed attention and has a stimulating effect.

Orange and vanilla scents, while you sleep, can prime your mind to work better on creative problems and tasks the next day — particularly if you use the same scents while viewing the components of the problem before you slumber. The restorative effects of sleep are well known. Sleep enhanced with the ambient scents of orange and vanilla improve innovative and creative strength on waking.

Improve energy

If you’re feeling a little lacklustre and are looking for a pick-me-up to help you power through, skip the coffee and try some new scents instead.

The scent of pine is excellent for elevating mood and increasing alertness. It’s also known to alleviate stress and is frequently used in aromatherapies for its uplifting, energising and invigorating properties. Research done with rats indicated pine has anti-depressant qualities too.

Lemony scents have anti-stress effects and are great for giving you a little more ‘get-up and go’. Research has shown they enhance positive mood. One Japanese study found they could help reduce typing errors by 54% while another showed they were effective at reducing tension-anxiety and fatigue.

Using different aromas in your workplace can help you make new connections, discover insights that you may otherwise have missed or just boost your energy and mood.

Oil diffusers are one way to use scents. If you share a workspace with others, you may prefer to rub a few drops of scented oil into your palms and inhale the aroma from cupped hands. Either way, getting some scent into your day is scientifically proven to enhance different types of brain activity. It’s also a nice way to can get your brain to switch gears and improve your thinking.