Smelling coffee is enough to make your brain perform better

Important work meeting? Try sniffing coffee! Scientists discover just the smell of the drink is enough to boost your brain performance

  • Scientists say smelling coffee could produce a similar effect to drinking it
  • The drink’s odour could produce a placebo effect which mimics caffeine 
  • Students in an exam performed ‘significantly’ better when they could smell it 

The smell of coffee could make your brain perform better – even if you don’t drink it, research has revealed.

People sitting in a room which smells of coffee do better in exams because their brain reacts as if they have consumed caffeine, scientists say.

Coffee is already thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, boost metabolism and lower the chances of dying young – and now it could help you without you even drinking it.

Being able to smell the drink during a test means people get better scores on the same test as those in a room which does not smell, according to a study.

People also think they will perform better if they can smell coffee, scientists say, and believing in themselves may be part of the reason they actually go on to do well.

The researchers suggest being able to smell the drink produces an effect similar to caffeine, which stimulates the brain. 

They say their findings could be used by employers and architects to change the way people act in buildings.

Smelling coffee could boost the brain’s performance by producing a similar effect to actually drinking it, scientists say

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Researchers led by the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey tested their theory on business students sitting an algebra exam.

They say it is particularly interesting that when people are questioned they think they will do better on a test if they can smell coffee – and they are right.

It is not clear whether the smell can have a chemical effect on the brain in the same way that caffeine does when people drink coffee. 

The smell may boost performance because we think it will 

But the scientists suggest the smell has a placebo effect, in which something – usually a drug – does not technically work but someone’s belief in it makes it have an effect.

And because people recognise the smell of coffee and associate it with caffeine, their brain essentially reacts in a similar way to actually drinking it. 

‘It’s not just that the coffee-like scent helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting,’ says study leader Adriana Madzharov.


  • Drinking three coffees a day could help you live longer, research has found
  • Drinking four cups of coffee a day almost halves the risk of deadly mouth cancer
  • Research found that those who had a cup of coffee one hour before a work-out could exercise for longer
  • Coffee helps you lose weight because it contains several substances that can affect your metabolism
  • It is a natural painkiller, especially espresso 
  • It helps headaches. The combination of aspirin and caffeine has been found to relieve pain better than aspirin alone
  • Research has demonstrated that coffee drinking may help reduce cognitive decline and dementia 
  • Drinking more coffee may help stave off liver cancer, a study found 

‘But they also thought they would do better, and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance.’ 

Caffeine stimulates the brain 

Caffeine is known to be a stimulant, meaning it activates the brain and central nervous system to reduce tiredness and make people more alert and focused.

Past research has also claimed it can reduce the risk of depression, boost long-term memory and protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  

In the study, researchers gave 100 business students a 10-question algebra test and split them into two groups. 

Students who can smell coffee score better in exams 

One group took the test in a room filled with a coffee-like scent, while the second group took the same test in an unscented room. 

The group in the coffee-smelling room scored significantly higher on the test.

Researchers then did a follow-up survey on more than 200 different people and found they think their performance on mental tasks would improve in the presence of a coffee smell when compared to a flowery scent or no smell.  

Professor Madzharov adds: ‘Olfaction is one of our most powerful senses. 

‘Employers, architects, building developers, retail space managers and others, can use subtle scents to help shape employees’ or occupants’ experience with their environment. 

‘It’s an area of great interest and potential.’ 

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