Power of Scent

Odors affect the brain’s circuitry to trigger strong emotional responses.

by Violet Snow

May 2011

Smells can evoke powerful memories: A pie baking can bring you back to your grandmother’s kitchen, a newly mowed lawn may remind you of carefree childhood summers. These associations arise from the way the sense of smell is wired within the brain.

Aromatherapy—the use of concentrated aromatic plant oils for healing—operates through the same biological pathways. “A chemical is breathed in and before we can think about what it means, it goes to where emotions are processed,” says Rachel Herz, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and author of The Scent of Desire (HarperCollins). This gives aromatherapy—and other forms of scent control—the ability to profoundly affect how we feel.

Basic Responses

Emotions such as pleasure, lust, maternal love and protectiveness, sadness and grief are all triggered in the limbic system. This area of the brain translates emotions into hormonal responses and is crucial to the formation of memories.

The fact that smell bypasses areas of the brain responsible for cognitive processing makes it different from sight, hearing and touch. “The other senses are interpreted first at a higher cognitive level,” explains Herz. “We appraise whether the sensation is a good or bad thing, and then it gets emotionally assigned. With smell, the emotional stimulation comes first. Later we make the cognitive connections.”

As a result, says Herz, the smells of essential oils can provoke “an instantaneous response in the feeling it gives you, along with responses in physiol­ogy, mood and cognition. You smell something, and you may get a happy, excited feeling, your heart rate can go up, other physical parameters may change and you feel good. There is a potential effect on your well-being.”

Effective Odors

The link between aroma and emotion has been well established. But for Herz, smells do not have intrinsic healing effects. “If I smell an odor, and it has no meaning to me, no physical consequences will follow. It’s only if odor in my past was related to a specific emotion that it has an effect. By contrast, if it made me feel sad or frustrated, a negative consequence will follow,” she says.

She offers the example of someone who drank orange juice when suffering from a stomach virus and then promptly threw up. That person will always be repelled by the smell of oranges—although the scent of orange is considered uplifting by aromatherapists.

“It’s totally culturally learned,” says Herz. “Lavender’s relaxing smell is attached to your experience of lavender—it’s not a drug that will make you feel relaxed. In scientific testing there is no evidence in humans for physiological levels of inhaled aroma ever having been found in blood.”
Practitioners who specialize in the therapeutic use of odors as a healing modality dispute that idea.

Alan and Penny Keay, certified clinical aromatherapists and proprietors of Birch Hill Happenings Aromatherapy in Barnum, Minnesota, believe that specific essential oils do have physical properties independent of memory.

“We agree that you can be upset by a smell that was present at a tragedy,” says Penny. “But we have seen and experienced both stimulating and sedating properties of essential oils.”

The Keays attribute these intrinsic healing effects to the tendency of inhaled oils to pass directly into the bloodstream through the lungs. They refer to research in such publications as Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition and the International Journal of Palliative Nursing that quantify effects of sandalwood and chamomile, respectively, in soothing pain and reducing stress.

Penny Keay offers as an example the staff at one nursing facility who, upon smelling fresh, floral ylang-ylang oil, found that it made them universally “happier and brighter. The activity director ended up locking the bottle away. She had discovered that the staff was coming and sniffing it throughout their shift.”

The power of scent to profoundly affect one’s emotions has been put to commercial use as well. Neal Harris is founder and CEO of Scentevents, which provides systems to scent spaces for such events as parties, weddings and concerts, including Katy Perry’s summer 2011 world tour, which will be accompanied by the scent of cotton candy.

Harris also serves as a consultant for AromaSys, a company that delivers scents throughout casinos and large hotels. “If the ambiance desired is ‘exciting and fun,’” says Harris, “we’ll formulate a scent to reinforce that experience. There might be a tropical theme for a vacation feel, and we’ll provide scents of pineapple, coconut or maybe suntan lotion. If they’re looking for a relaxing nature experience, like in a spa or the garden of a hotel, we’ll use natural scents like lavender or eucalyptus.”

The goal is to maximize profits by increasing the amount of time spent by patrons in the facilities. Harris cannot cite specific research studies as to scent control’s effectiveness. However, as he remarks, “Casinos understand numbers better than anybody. By introducing aroma, they see more people staying and enjoying the experience, or shopping longer. They are seeing an increase in value by adding aroma, or they wouldn’t do it.”

Lavender is the best-known oil used in aromatherapy, valued by healers for its stress-relief and anti-depressive properties. Other oils include rosemary, used to promote better memory and stimulate the nervous system; peppermint, which helps ease digestion and relieve muscle spasms; patchouli, used to help revive dry, aging skin and reduce dandruff; and tea tree, an all-purpose antiseptic that promotes wound healing and helps fight fungal infections.

For more information on aromatherapy and essential oils, contact the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy: www.naha.org, 828-898-6161.

Finding a Massage Therapist

Aromatherapy is often employed in massage, a therapy that 39 million Americans turn to each year for relief of pain, stress and other health problems. As with any other healing art, however, it’s important to find a practitioner you click with to get the most value out of massage. So you need to ask yourself: What do I want from a therapist?

The first issue you need to examine is what type of massage you’re interested in. Swedish massage is the rubbing and tapping most people are familiar with; sports massage blends those techniques with practices such as compression and icing. Deep tissue work uses deep finger pressure and slow strokes to release tension and pain; shiatsu applies that pressure to the same energy meridians used in acupuncture. Myofascial release employs sliding strokes to smooth out the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds each muscle, while Thai massage unblocks trapped energy through rhythmic pressure and gentle rocking motions.

One way to find a therapist is to use the locator service on the American Massage Therapy Association’s website, www.amtamassage.org. But don’t discount word of mouth—someone who is happy with their therapist is generally glad to spread the news.

When you do find someone, set up a phone appointment before your first office visit to ask some questions: What style(s) does he or she practice? (Not all massage styles are suitable for all conditions and not all therapists are trained in all styles.) What kind of training do you have? Are you certified in this state? (Ask your state’s health department which agency certifies massage therapists.) If privacy concerns you, don’t be afraid to ask about whether or how much skin you’ll have to expose for the massage to be effective.

In return, the therapist should ask you what you’re looking for—pain relief? stress reduction?—and whether or not you have any pre-existing conditions, including whether or not you’re working with other practitioners. If your condition isn’t a good match for that person’s skills and background, a good therapist will refer you to someone else.

When you find the right therapist, massage can work wonders.

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