A 2013 study conducted by researchers at the Psychology Department of Northumbria University, Newcastle, set out to investigate whether rosemary lives up to its claim that it helps memory. The researchers were particularly interested in testing it for the “ability to remember events that will occur in the future and to remember to complete tasks at particular times

[as] is critical for everyday functioning.” (1) Examples for that would be to make a call at a particular time, or “In seven minutes’ time from now can you hand me this book?” (2), or “to take medication at a particular time.”(1)

66 participants were separated into 3 groups: one of them in a room that had been exposed to rosemary with a high 1,8 cineole content, a second group in a room with diffused lavender; and one control group was in a room that was not scented.

All participants were given distracting tasks, mixed with those that would test for what is called prospective memory, where repeated reminders to do tasks would result in lower and lower test scores. The research team found that, though alertness appeared unchanged in the rosemary room, participants in this room performed statistically significantly better than their counterparts in the unscented and lavender rooms.(3) Moreover, there was a significant decrease for memory performance in the lavender room, which was interpreted as support for the use of lavender for sleep and sedation.

Now, please do not go and buy a big bottle of rosemary essential oil and use it liberally to enhance your memory! The amount used for the study was 4 DROPS, dispersed in a diffuser for 10 minutes before the participants arrived, and inhaled Rosemary cineole was traceable in the participants’ blood samples at the end of the test.

1,8 cineole of rosemary essential oil works to prevent the breakdown of neurotransmitters – too much of the oil can overwhelm your brain and, in very rare cases, lead to epileptic seizures. It is contra-indicated for people with high blood pressure. For that reason, Rosemary cineole is often blended with other oils to negate or minimize its possible side effects. Also, to my knowledge, the study did not show an accumulative effect of the use of Rosemary cineole. So, use a very small amount when you want and need it – then rest. When in doubt, please consult with your health care provider before using this potent oil. As with most essential oils, rosemary essential oil should be avoided during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, and for children younger than 2 years of age. (4)

Also, if you want to use rosemary oil for memory enhancement, make sure that you really use oil rich in 1,8 cineole: Rosemary verbenone, a variation of rosemary, smells “softer” than cineole, is an effective pheromone, and has been used in perfumery for centuries – it is also an effective bug repellent (like lemon verbena); but for memory enhancement, you will want Rosemary officinalis var. cineole.

  3. I have not been able to find the study itself, but secondary sources report that prospective memory function increased by 60 to 75 %.