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  • Monika Getty

The Power of Scent

Take a deep breath; what do you smell? Is it a pleasant scent, such as vanilla, orange or beeswax? Is it an unpleasant scent, such as ammonia, fresh asphalt or overly strong cologne? How does it make you feel? What we smell can affect our memory and emotions, and our sense of smell is more powerful than you might think.

When we smell or sniff the air, the chemicals in the air are dissolved in mucus. Odour receptor neurons in the olfactory epithelium detect these scents and send the signals on to the olfactory bulb, which are then sent along olfactory tracts to the olfactory cortex of the brain. The olfactory cortex helps in the processing and perception of odour; it is located in the temporal lobe of the brain, which is involved in organizing sensory input. The olfactory cortex is also part of the limbic system; this system is involved in the processing of our emotions, the formation of memories and survival instincts. The olfactory cortex has connections with other limbic system structures such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. The amygdala is involved in forming emotional responses (especially fear) and memories, the hippocampus catalogues and stores memories, and the hypothalamus regulates emotional responses. As you can see, our sense of smell is the quickest way to access our brain and can instantly influence both our emotions and memories, whether we're conscious of it or not.

This is why different scents can be so powerful. Have you ever walked into a crowded room and instantly experienced a surge of emotion as you thought you smelled your mother, your best friend or your favourite grade school teacher? Then you’ve had a first-hand experience to the potency of smell as a trigger of emotional memory. As Diane Ackerman, science historian and author of "A Natural History of the Senses" explains, "A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them. When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.” Think about it: the smell of vanilla to many people brings back warm memories of our mothers or grandmothers baking something wonderful in the kitchen, whereas the smell of a certain cologne or perfume can trigger unpleasant memories of our exes.

Scent information also goes to the thalamus, a structure in the brain that is the relay station for all of the sensory information coming into the brain. The thalamus transmits some of this scent information to the orbitofrontal cortex, where it can then be integrated with taste information. What we often think of as our sense of taste is actually the result of the mingling of these senses. In other words, if we cant smell things properly, like when we have a head cold, we can't taste things properly either.

There's also interest in whether or not smell can alter our perceptions of pain. There is some promise to this, but it seems to have more to do with the familiarity of a pleasant scent than anything else. In 2013, 135 newborns who had to have an injection were either prepared for the event by sleeping next to a vanilla scented pad or not. They were then either given the vanilla smell on a pad during the procedure or other types of care. The newborns who'd been familiarized with the smell and given it again during the painful injection were much less likely to cry than the other two groups, who either smelled it for the first time or had nothing to smell. This may help to explain why familiar, comforting scents like lavender can help to reduce anxiety during stressful events; we associate them emotionally with an unthreatening situation, so our response is calmer. The takeaway? If you're going through something stressful, try programming your brain to associate a specific scent with good, calm times, and then take it with you everywhere and use as needed.

Personally, I prefer natural scents versus synthetic scents. When I'm grocery shopping, I avoid the aisles with laundry and cleaning products as the strong, fake smells give me a headache and make my stomach turn. More and more people these days are sensitive to smells, especially unnatural ones, leading to scent free policies in certain places. Naturally derived scents don't seem to give me as many problems; that being said, while I enjoy the smell of my lilac shrub outside in the spring, I couldn't have the flowers in the house as the smell is just way too strong.

I love using aromatherapy, not just at work for clients but at home as well. The interesting thing about aromatherapy is that it doesn't need to be a strong application in order for us to be affected by it; in fact, very subtle use of essential oils can be just as effective as strong ones, sometimes even more so. Using a light hand can lead to better desired results with less ill effects. Think of it like perfume: it can be very pleasant when you can only smell it when you're close to a person, but rather offensive when you can smell it a mile away and taste it in your mouth due to heavy handed use.

Essential oils all have different properties; for example, oils such as lemon or rosemary are stimulating and refreshing, whereas lavender and rose oils are relaxing. It's very important to do some research before using essential oils, whether you use it topically, in a diffuser or a bath. Some oils can have unwanted consequences in their use; for example, you would never want to add peppermint oil to your bath, as your mucus membranes and private areas will be irritated and highly uncomfortable to say the least! Research is especially important if you're going to use essential oils around babies, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with health conditions and pets. Just because essential oils are natural doesn't mean that they can't produce unwanted effects, such as allergic reactions, respiratory issues and headaches. Essential oils are powerful and should only be used with a good knowledge base and respect.

Most people need to relax more, and as mentioned earlier, lavender is a very relaxing smell. It is, however, something my friend can't stand so she prefers to use ylang ylang oil instead, which is a scent I absolutely detest. Scent is a very personal thing, so use what appeals to you to get the results you desire.

Recognizing and harnessing the power of certain scents in your everyday life can give you the ability to use aromas as a tool to create a better state of mind on demand. The whiff of an aroma, even briefly experienced, can unlock some of the best moments in your life, help you relive positive connections with people and places from your past, transporting you to places and times you had long forgotten. That's the amazing power of scent!

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