The nose knows
Our sense of smell can open many doors
By Vivienne O’Keeffe
Published in Spa Life magazine’s Summer 2017 issue
Ever walked into a place you hadn’t been to for years and instantly recalled the smell? Maybe a church, a campsite, a ferry boat, or an aunt’s house?
Smell can access your memory recall in an instant, as if you have fallen through a trap door and stepped back in time. The smell of baking bread from a wood burning stove, for example, can transport you in seconds to when you were a toddler, waiting anxiously for fresh-baked brown bread soaked in soft yellow butter, and experiencing warm feelings of secure comfort in Granny’s loving care.
On the other hand, that same smell could evoke a sudden, flood of vivid memories for someone else. Our response to smell is highly individualized. Where does the aroma of coffee take you? Or the smell of newly mown grass?
Helen Keller, born deaf and blind, summed it up perfectly: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Imagine the smell of a baby, a puppy, the sweet smell of honeysuckle after a spring rain.
Our first whiff of a new scent seems to govern the way we feel about that smell in the future. This effect was demonstrated in two separate studies that exposed people to wintergreen aroma; one conducted in the mid-1960s in the UK (Moncrieff, 1966) and the other in the late 1970s in the U.S. (Cain and Johnson, 1978). Respondents in Britain found the smell less pleasant because many associated it with its use in hospitals during WW II, whereas most American respondents found it agreeable – probably because wintergreen is used to flavour mint candy (reported online by Scientific American).
According to the Scientific American report, odours not only affect our mood but also change bodily functions like heart rate, and motivate our actions. One study showed that people were better at creative problem-solving when exposed to an aroma they liked.
There’s no doubt that aromas work powerfully on our conscious and subconscious minds. The smell of your beloved can cause a cascade of heart-opening love or joy; a deep relaxed feeling of being home as you gently kiss the nape of the neck, inhaling his or her smell.
Conversely, an unexpected whiff of a past or deceased love’s aftershave or perfume can trigger unresolved grief, leaving one feeling helpless and overcome with loss and sadness, swimming in a deep, undulating ocean of emotions.
Our smell mechanism – the olfactory system – is a marvel of creation. Odorants or aromatic molecules from plants and other substances enter the nostrils and stimulate tiny hairs called cilia embedded in neural tissue in the nose’s epithelium. It’s the only place in the human body where the central nervous system is exposed to direct contact with the environment. Smell is therefore a link between our brain and the outside world – which is also why airborne pollutants can have such a deleterious effect on our health.
Aromas pass into the limbic system – the area of the brain associated with strong emotions such as anger, fear and joy. The limbic lobe can directly activate the hypothalamus, or master gland, which controls production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. The hormone serotonin reduces anxiety while producing a pleasant and euphoric sensation – the reason aromatherapy sessions can have a powerful healing effect, allowing the body the opportunity to release trauma held in the cells sometimes over many years.
Hardly new, aromatherapy dates back to around 4500 BC, when the Ancient Egyptians used essential oils – aromatic plant essences – for bathing, embalming, anointing, massaging, purifying air and repelling insects. Doctor Jean Valnet, the father of modern aromatherapy, successfully used plant essences for healing wounded soldiers in WW II when there was a shortage of antibiotics. After the war he went into private practice in Paris to study their different actions and anti-infection properties. Notably, he worked on treating an isolated bacterial strain with aromatic gases instead of conventional antibiotics.
Distinguishing between good and bad or healthy and unhealthy aromas is part of our primitive survival mechanism and the reason we are able to enjoy the healthful effects of aromatherapy. In her Nobel lecture “Unraveling the Sense of Smell,” Linda B. Buck says humans can differentiate as many as 100,000 different chemical odours, which sometimes only have slight differences in their molecular structure.
Buck says our olfactory systems can also pick up pheromones; chemicals released by animals that trigger behaviour or hormonal responses in animals of the same species, for example, aggression or mating. Sensing the odour of a predator triggers the fight or flight response, an invaluable self-defense mechanism.
Smell is vital to our health and well-being. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with partial or complete loss of smell may lose interest in food and suffer from malnutrition, weight loss and depression.
“Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies?” queried German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.
You could use your sense of smell, as I do, to help me drop down into my body and be totally present where I am. I find it very helpful when I am out walking in the forest to take a deep breath, conscious of the air, laced with green aromatic particles, and particularly fragrant after a rain shower. Or I deliberately inhale the ion-rich salty air as I walk along the beach, inviting the purifying ions into my body.
Here are some tangible tips you can use to feel the healing power of smell in your own body:
- Take a deep breath and inhale purifying salty sea air. Breathe out your worry and anxiety.
- Place the palm of your hand on a moss-covered log and draw in the delightful grounding aromas. If you are up for a more enveloping experience, put your nose up to a moist spongy spoon moss mat – found on the forest floor – and inhale the green smell.
- Take time to marvel at nature’s magical magnificence as you view and smell a nurse log in the forest.
- Scoop up a moist handful of soil and inhale the earthy aroma.
- Consciously smell the aroma of fruit before you begin to eat it. Savour the aroma of your herbal tea, wine or fruit smoothie.
- Plant a pot of herbs next to your front door and rub the herbs between your fingers when you come and go.
- Select aromatic flowers for your garden or vase, particularly those with scents that invoke happy memories. “Perfumes are the feelings of flowers.” – Heinrich Heine.
- Consciously cultivate a garden to delight. Imagine yourself blindfolded and walking along the aromatic path. “My garden, with its silence and pulses of fragrance that come and go on the airy undulations, affects me like sweet music. Care stops at the gates, and gazes at me wistfully through the bars.” – Alexander Smith.
- Anoint yourself and the one you love with a healing aromatic essence such as rose or jasmine to intentionally deepen and set forth an invitation for an ethereal spiritual union together. Choose the best quality natural aromas you can afford. Note: Chemical fragrances may have a similar smell to natural aromas, however they can cause excessive irritation and do not offer the benefits of a full holistic healing experience that natural aromas provide.
- Try a drop of clary sage on your pillow to help you recall your dreams.
- Put a sprig of lavender on your guest’s pillow.
Let your nose take you on a voyage through our rich aromatic world. Sojourn for a while and allow all your senses to savour the marvel of this moment – whether it’s to ride the wave of a feeling for true healing and liberty, or to invite your body, mind and soul to be present in the now. Our sense of smell holds out this invitation to our consciousness.
“Love is like the perfume of a flower; one or the many can smell it. What matters is the perfume, not to whom it belongs.” – J. Krishnamurti
Vivienne O’Keeffe, AAD, PEA, CIBTAC, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., and an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She is also an international consultant in developing product lines, treatment plans and training programs, a member of ISPA and Spa Industry Association of Canada (for which she won an Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012), and a member of International Management Consultants Inc.