ABILITY home / ABILITY home (graphics version) /
current issue / past issues / subscriptions /
links / resources / ADA /
contact us
/ back issue ordering

Aroma Therapy The Treasures and Pleasures of Scent

"Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start to awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away."

This eloquent quote expressed by Helen Keller so vividly says what many of us experience when exposed to aromas. Smell is the sense that reaches deeply and quickly into our emotional center to evoke feelings and memories of our past.

When was the last time you paused and took notice of an aroma? When did a certain scent evoke nostalgia by transporting you to that specific experience? Has scent soothed your anxiety, relieved insomnia or spiced up your social interactions? Odor molecules are chemical communicators that give specific and potent messages. "Neuroscience", the study of the sense of smell, has become the "haute couture" of the academic world.

We are approaching the millennium and the sensory revolution is in full swing. The power and pleasure of scent and our sense of smell is being explored by scientists throughout the world. This positive effect scent has on human behavior is amazing researchers because the implications and applications are so exciting. The research that follows is provocative and lends itself to the innovative use of scent in the future.

With the help of technology, researchers are assisted in examining the brain’s response to olfactory stimulation. Dr. Tyler Lorig studied the brains response to odor by measuring electrical patterns in the brain when subjects smelled an odorant. Drs. Hong-Ming Cheng and Bruce Wexler used magnetic resonance imaging that produces highly detailed maps of metabolic activity in portions of the brain involved in odor perception. Both teams of researchers found that brain activity increased in specific parts of the brain when certain smells were picked up by the nose. These studies show that sensory information from the nose is processed by certain portions of the brain. Understanding how the brain receives and processes olfactory cues will add a new dimension to the mystique of the overall sensory experience.he human olfactory system is fully mature at birth. Within two days after its birth, a baby recognizes its mother by its sense of smell. A link between a baby’s sense of smell and an early ability to learn was discovered by Dr. Ira Lott. Her research suggests that a baby who doesn’t remember her mother’s odor could be prone to learning disorders.

Sleep studies to see which scents have an effect on sleep found that most scents did have an effect. The olfactory receptors were stimulated when an odor was present and the brain was receiving the odor stimulation. This has exciting implications for the hearing-impaired, who are unable to respond to auditory signals used in warning devices like fire and security alarms. Odorant molecules travel through darkness and can bend around corners to alert sleeping individuals to dangers that are not directly within their line of vision.

By the year 2000, we will have aroma-air-conditioning systems that will pump the sedating scent of lavender 20 minutes before we want to sleep. Pleasant odors will also be used to positively affect our dreams. Waiting rooms in doctors and dentist offices will be suffused with an aroma that calms.

Drs. Joel Warm and William Dember found that workers who occasionally sniffed peppermint and muguet while performing sustained attention tasks improved the quality of their work significantly. Releasing the scent of peppermint into the office environment could help increase employee alertness, attitude and performance. Just imagine the workplace of the future using a fragrance system to increase worker efficiency. It could ultimately create a more gratifying work environment. Implications for using scents that have a stimulating effect are being explored by automobile manufacturers and long distance truck drivers.

Research done by Dr. Rachel Hertz found that, memories evoked by our sense of smell are more emotional than memories evoked by our other senses, including sight, sound and touch. Our odor memory bank is housed in the brain’s limbic system. Limbic system controls or modifies our emotional and sexual response, hunger and thirst responses, artistic abilities, perceptions of space, body temperature, and cognitive ability. This portion of the brain also receives and stores information experienced by all the other senses. The electrical signals released by the sense of smell may trigger our strongest memories of the past. Positive or negative, our reaction to odor depends on our own personal and unique odor/memory association.

Pure essential oils that are scientifically documented to have an antibacterial and antifungal effect are being used to naturally purify the air. By diffusing the essential oils into the air using an electric diffuser, it is possible to cover up to a 2,000 sq. ft. dwelling. Oils, such as eucalyptus, neutralize many of the microbes inside the home. The use of essential oils in cleansing our interior environments is as exciting as the oil’s capacity for emotional cleansing. When inhaled, these pure oils go on a complex olfactory journey in which they eventually reach the amygdala, the memory center for fear and trauma. Dr. Joseph Ledoux discovered that the amygdala plays a major role in releasing and storing emotional trauma. As we can see odor or fragrance has a profound effect in triggering a emotional response.

For the skeptics who challenge the powerful effect scent has on psyche and for those who would like to explore more, watch for the continuation of this article in the next issue.

Anneliese London, M. A. is an Assistant Professor,
Health Editor, Holistic Health Educator and Speaker.