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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 11th April 2013

'Here's rosemary, that's for remembrance. So remember.'
Hamlet Act IV Scene 5

That quote appears on the A to Z page for Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary, along with a summary of some research suggesting that the smell of rosemary could actually enhance memory.

Knowing that I was surprised to read a Mail Online piece1 saying;

‘Researchers have found for the first time that essential oil from the herb when sniffed in advance enables people to remember to do things.’

Reading on it became clear that the essential word there was ‘do’ because what is new about this research is that it was used to determine if people would remember to perform actions in the future better after smelling rosemary. Previous work has focussed on simply remembering items from the past.

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary

Now, I’m not a brain specialist so I can’t say if there is really a difference between remembering, say, that five minutes ago a dog walked passed your house and remembering in five minutes time to go and make sure it didn’t leave a souvenir on the pavement as it went by but that, essentially, was the difference between previous research and this latest study from the same establishment.

As previously, this was quite a small study, 66 participants in total, so the general applicability of its findings has to be queried but just being a small study does not automatically render its findings invalid. (By chance I happened to read this interesting piece on the problem of getting reliable results from small studies.)

Having read the Mail piece I went searching for the primary information. It took very little time to confirm that this work was presented at the British Psychological Society annual conference2 and then to find the Northumbria University press release3 about it.

As I read the press release, some of it seemed very familiar and, by putting the two pieces side by side, it became clear that large parts of the Mail article were directly pasted from the press release.

But then I read;

‘‘We deliberately set them a lot of tasks, so it’s possible that people who multi-task could function better after sniffing rosemary oil.’ Miss McCready said’

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary

There is no mention of multi-tasking in the university release and I couldn’t see how the trial, as described, would demonstrate that. There is a difference, surely, between remembering multiple future tasks and performing multiple tasks simultaneously.

Clearly, that quote could have come as a result of a Mail reporter, attending the conference, asking Ms McCready a question during or after the session but a search of Mail Online showed no other stories from the BPS conference and I doubt if a reporter would have been in attendance just to cover this item. A look at the conference programme shows that there were a number of items that might excite Mail readers; the 2011 riots, male body modification, parenting and football players’ relations with coaches to pick out a few. If a reporter had been in attendance, I would have thought there would have been other stories published by the Mail Online.

Perhaps the quote came from a reporter calling the university or from some other publication. I couldn’t find contact details for Ms McCready but I did find the email address for Dr. Moss. I've now heard from Dr. Moss who says the Mail is 'over-interpreting Ms McCready's responses'. That sounds like a generous way of describing it.

It seems then that this is not a direct quote. I suppose it could be the reporter’s memory played a trick on him and he thought he remembered Ms McCready saying this because he’d been smelling Conradina canescens.* 


1.    Why a whiff of rosemary DOES help you remember: Sniffing the herb can increase memory by 75% Mail Online 9th April 2013
2.    Rosemary really is for remembrance says Annual Conference paper British Psychological Society 9th April 2013
3.    Rosemary aroma may help you remember to do things University of Northumbria 9th April 2013

*Conradina canescens is known as ‘false rosemary’.


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