Aromatherapist Veronica Massa shares some insight into our relationship with smell - the incredible way our brains process what this evocative sense brings us and the power it can have on our wellbeing
'…people could close their eyes to greatness, to horror, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother to breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate.
He who ruled scent ruled the heart of men.'
Parfume: The Story of A Murderer, Patrick Suskind
The sense of smell is set apart from other sensory modalities. Scents possess the ability to immediately trigger strong emotional memories, scents evoke many images and sensations. Odour perception, though olfaction, immediately involves the limbic structures instantaneously evoking emotions and facilitating the encoding of memories. This early involvement is not parallel in other sensory modalities.
Scented oils in the past.
Every major culture through history has used aromatics to create special moods.
In Egypt scented oils and incense has been used from the earliest historical times. Pharaohs indulged in sweet ointments, scented substances were provided for use in the Hereafter, and the Moringa oil used as base oil for perfumes was distributed for the enjoyment of the population outside the palace. In Egypt, perfume wasn’t like the perfume of today, oils were sacred and perfume was holistic, much as aromatherapy today.
It may be for its stronger scent and effect that the blue Lotus has appeared so frequently in Egyptians decorations. The effect of the scent of the lotus flower was used to open the heart of divinities, same as that of ordinary mortals, intimately affected by the ‘divinity ‘of its scent, which could be interpreted as sedative or hypnotic. Documents show as Egyptians were already aware of the use of scents for a specific psychic and spiritual purpose.
At a time when man’s senses had not yet been contaminated with modern artificial preparation, sensitivity to natural scents must have been more acute. For an Egyptian, to indulge on the beautiful smell of a lotus, had to be sufficient to provoke him a considerable effect enough to achieve an alteration of his consciousness.
A considerable number of aromatic plants produce the effect of liberating the mind and altering the emotions, with the ability to cause sedation or excitement, or bring back a memory. Through the sense of smell we can ‘manipulate’ our emotions.
But how does it happen?
The Olfactory System and the sense of smell in humans
The olfactory system, which senses and processes odours, is one of the oldest and most vital parts of the brain. A primal part of our brain responds to smell and is activated from birth. We smell and react to different aromas before we learn to differentiate between colors, sounds and textures. Olfactory communication allows the newborn baby to identify and locate his mother. Smell triggers nursing instinct in animals like in humans, in the same way a mother can recognize her own baby by odour. It is also know that during pregnancy the sense of smell is heightened by hormonal changes, bringing humans closer to their animal nature which in today’s ‘civilized’ society has been suppressed neglecting that powerful instinct, still unconsciously used for self-preservation or species preservation. Think about the protective mechanism that allows us to recognize a gone bad food or the primitive instinct related to sexual significance.
Humans are greatly influenced by odors of others, which is reason of attraction or repulsion between two people; this is an unaware mechanism. Odour is an involuntary method of communication. We send signals through subliminal smells called pheromone which are airborne chemicals involuntarily expelled into the air that affect the physiology or behavior of other members of the same species. Pheromones work in a subliminal way because humans are not aware of them, they are unique for everybody, like our very own ‘smell print’.
Odour, emotions and science
Studies on human psychological processes such as mood, memory and cognition, strongly support the notion that odours are powerful memory stimulants, which can spontaneously cue emotion and autobiographical data. They suggest that because of the uniqueness of the olfactory system with its direct contact to the limbic system and our emotions, stimuli are processed on a unconscious nonverbal level connecting past with present in a way very different from the other senses.
Considering the potent effect of odours on memory and emotions which research is increasingly illustrating, it is easy to see why aroma can be such an important tool in therapeutic action.
Studies have shown that thinking about the scent can be as powerful as the scent itself. Mentioning certain scents or asking about odors during a session can bring about a deeper discussion of feelings and emotions, allowing the client to tune into the experience more intimately, to feel it more directly, and to connect with it on a fuller level.
I remember a client who couldn’t stand Lavender because it was bringing on memories of her very unpleasant grandmother who used to wear the scent. In this case Lavender wasn’t serving the purpose as a relaxing, sedating oil!
In just one square inch of the brain, humans have the capacity to process about 10.000 different odors. The majority of aromas perceived involve a complex organization of hundreds of odor molecules, and through the simultaneous recognition of the individual odor molecules, a complex scent is recognized as a whole equal to the sum of its parts. 70 to 75% of what we perceive as a taste actually comes from our sense of smell. More specifically, it is the odor molecules that enter the passage between the nose and mouth that gives us most of our taste sensation.
A common junction where memories, emotions and odors meet
Recognition of the odour occurs in the limbic system where the transmitted signal is sent to. Here the signal is interpreted through a comparison to past experiences with the odour and relation of the smell to the emitting substance. The limbic system, which receives information from the chemoreceptors about a particular odour, not only mediates mood and emotions, but also serves as a memory storage area.
Olfactory information travels not only to the limbic system but also to the brain’s cortex, or outer layer, where conscious thoughts occurs.
This common junction, where memories, emotions and odours meet, explains why smell is often an intense trigger for distinct memories and potent emotions. When perceiving a particular aroma that is associated with a past memory, the recognition of the odor in the olfactory process will simultaneously evoke the correlated memory. Determining the links between specific odors and a produced behavior is a technique that scientists are still trying to perfect.
Smell could produce psychological effects similar to mood states, a pleasant smell produces a positive mood. Odours leave a lasting impression, long-term odour memory is even stronger than long-term visual memory, making of odours a powerful tool to recall memories even in cases of amnesia or comatose conditions.
Students exposed to pleasant smell while learning, remembered a considerably high percentage during examination if exposed to the same smell. In order to have a memory association, the same smell must be present at both learning and testing stage.
Essential Oils and Aromatherapy
Essential oils extracted from aromatic plants have therefore a remarkable therapeutic power. Bearing in mind the knowledge explained above, we can use our sense of smell and scents to consciously alter the way we feel. Essential oils can be a powerful tool to support emotional difficulties, low mood and depression.
Experience an Aromatherapy massage and explore the sensations you perceive when beautiful scents pervade your being.
Veronica welcomes you to experience essential oils to support you through the change of seasons and your moon cycles, balance your Chakras, energetically unblock and balance meridians and related organs, harmonize your mood, emotions and gift you with a stress relief experience that will be imprinted in your memory!