Aromatherapy affects the limbic system, which is a big reason it can be so powerful!
Big deal, right? What is the limbic system, anyway?
The limbic system is a complex network of brain structures, all interconnected to influence the way you experience emotions, memory, and instinctual drives. Some of the structures that are part of the limbic system are the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the olfactory bulb, and the olfactory cortex.
The limbic system is working when you:
- Smell a cookie and feel your mouth water.
- Smell smoke and then feel a spike of adrenaline, knowing you have to get out of the house.
- Hear the song you danced to at your wedding and feel a rush of emotion as you remember that special day.
- See your partner give you a sexy look, and you feel a rush of arousal.
The list goes on and on!
Basically, the limbic system is behind the way we feel, what we remember, what we want, and why we’re motivated to act.
Okay, great. So how does aromatherapy affect the limbic system?
The limbic system is so strongly influenced by olfaction that it used to be called the “rhinencephalon.” That means “nose brain!”
The part of the brain that takes in all the sensory information around you is called the “thalamus.” It takes in more details about your surroundings than you can consciously track, and only sends what’s important up to your cortex, which is where you make decisions. So the thalamus decides that you probably need to know about that smoke smell coming from the kitchen, but you can probably ignore that chirping birdie outside.
Everything you see, hear, touch, and taste gets filtered through your thalamus.
But not everything you smell!
Some of what you smell does go through your thalamus, but some of it bypasses your thalamus and is sent on a direct path straight to your olfactory cortex.
So what you smell impacts your limbic system (your “feeling brain”) and your cortex (your “thinking brain”) directly. Before you can say “I want a cookie,” your brain has processed that there are cookies in the oven, and released hormones that make you feel hungry. Your mouth is already watering!
What a strong power scent has over us, right?
Aromatherapy harnesses this power, so we can influence our bodies to feel sated or hungry, relaxed or energized, confident or shy. Our limbic systems can even influence how quickly we recover from sickness or injury. . .but that's a blog post for another day!