In folk medicine, rosemary has been associated for centuries with having a good memory. But is it worth investigating whether it really has any powers, asks Dr Chris Van Tulleken.
In scientific terms there are different kinds of memory.
There’s past memory – your experiences and what you learned at school. There’s present memory, which is your working minute-to-minute memory. And there’s future memory or “remembering to remember”.
This is for many of us the trickiest one. When it fails bad things happen – we forget to take our vital heart medicine or worse still to buy our spouse’s birthday presents. It’s the reason letters decompose in my back pocket over months even though I cycle past a postbox every day.
There are plenty of examples of people who have enormously improved their past memories, committing decks of cards to memory or whole new languages. But remembering to remember is more complicated. Like most people I would do almost anything for an improved future memory.
Medicine has little to offer. There are some drugs for treating the memory loss that happens with dementia but they are not hugely effective. They give some measurable benefits but whether they are “clinically significant” is controversial. Certainly they are no miracle cure for people with dementia, nor do they improve the memory of anyone else.
So I was not that hopeful travelling up to Newcastle to see Prof Mark Moss at Northumbria University. His team is running an experiment to test whether rosemary essential oil could benefit future memory. I’ll be honest – this seemed hokey.
Rosemary has been linked to memory for hundreds of years. Ophelia in Hamlet says to her brother Laertes: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” But that’s no kind of basis for a study. She had after all gone insane after the death of her father and was to kill herself shortly after this scene.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray/ Love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts… There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue/ For you; and here’s some for me: we may call it/ Herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with/ A difference.” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)
Rosemary is used in aromatherapy for similar reasons but this hardly seems like stronger evidence. Briefly, here’s my position on alternative therapies – I think they’re great. They have few side effects and they empower people. From my own work in remote communities around the world I think that ancient traditions of healing have much to teach us and historically they have provided many useful drugs. For me aromatherapy falls at that end of the therapeutic spectrum where I would expect to find little effect. It uses nice smells to make people feel… well, nice. Or so I thought.
Here’s how the experiment worked. The team at Northumbria recruited 60 older volunteers to test the effects of not only rosemary oil but also lavender oil. They then tested these volunteers in a room infused with either rosemary essential oil, lavender essential oil or no aroma. Participants were told they were there to test a vitamin water drink. Any comments about the aromas were passed off as irrelevant and “left over from the previous group to use the room”.
The volunteers (and I) then took a test which was designed to test their prospective memory. It’s a clever test with many layers so you never quite know what’s being tested.
At the start, objects are hidden around the room in places which you have to remember at the end of the test. Then you perform a series of distracting but fun word puzzles while increasingly complex demands are made of your memory by the testers (in my case two extraordinarily nice and competent graduate students, Kamila and Lauren). “In seven minutes’ time from now can you hand me this book?” or “when you come across a question about the Queen in the word puzzles can you remind me to call the garage”.
My marks were squarely average. I didn’t remember to remind Kamila to get her car from the garage in much the same way that I would have forgotten myself.
What Mark’s team found was remarkable.