As the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of clergypersons, I’ve spent a lot of time in churches. Worship, potluck suppers, choir practice, meetings—you name it, I was there, macerating in Protestant church life.
Fortunately, the environment suited me on the most basic level: I grew up loving what I’ve always called “church smell”—a miasma of candle wax, floor wax, mustiness, wood polish, paper, sometimes incense, goldfish crackers (from the church nursery) and flowers fresh and wilted. It probably shouldn’t surprise me that I ended up ordained as a minister; not only the call to spiritual healing but also the scent of worship beguiled me from a young age. To this day, I swear, I can sniff out church interiors from the street. With that aromatic “hit” comes an intense rush of memories and associations.
I’m anything but unique in this regard. Pretty much everyone has experienced a powerful response to scent, pleasant or foul or complicated, at some point. Our sudden, visceral experiences with scent stem from the fact that it is, hands down, the most primal and immediate sense: only in our olfactory system is the central nervous system in direct contact with the outside world. Our other four physical senses—touch, taste, hearing, and sight—require that the input travel through neurons and the spinal cord to get to the brain, but olfactory encounters go straight to the brain.
Here, briefly stated, is how smell works (with thanks to G. Rodriguez-Gil):
- Airborne, vaporized odor molecules hit the nostrils and dissolve in the interior mucus located on the nostrils’ roofs.
- In the olfactory epithelium, located underneath the mucus, receptor cells called olfactory receptor neurons detect the odor. These neurons can detect thousands or tens of thousands of different odors.
- The olfactory receptor neurons transmit the information to the olfactory bulbs, which are located at the back of the nose.
- The olfactory bulbs have sensory receptors (themselves actually part of the brain) that send messages directly to:
- The most primitive brain centers, where the information influences emotions and memories (limbic-system structures), and
- “Higher” centers, where the information modifies conscious thought (the neocortex).
- These brain centers perceive odors and access memories to recall people, places, or events associated with these olfactory sensations.
The above five steps illustrate, in a nutshell, why a single whiff of a given smell can instantly recall memories both beloved and best buried.
The power and potential of our sense of smell occupies researchers more and more these days. Researchers are tracing causal, or at least correlative, links between losing one’s sense of smell (anosmia) and the onset of depression and malnutrition (because smell is linked to taste and therefore appetite). One fascinating and unnerving study even noted the possibility that, among older adults, loss of smell can indicate an increased likelihood of death over the next five years, though the reasons are unclear.
Smell being such a directly evocative sense, it’s been theorized that it can offer a powerful avenue for communication among populations that are neurologically atypical—including individuals with dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease or atherosclerotic blockage). Along this line, educators and scientists have also noted that deaf-blind individuals frequently have extremely sensitive senses of smell to compensate for the lack of other sensory input. The olfactory process bypasses both dispassionately intellectual and physical pathways to trigger activity in the unconscious and conscious centers of the brain, which may be why the sense of smell is a remarkably effective means to access memories and feelings otherwise unreachable. In turn, these neurological responses may start a cascade effect that triggers bodily responses—for example, increased calm, increased or decreased heartrate, and the like.
Aromatherapy works via many routes to aid wellness—and the power of scent makes aromatherapy a fantastic tool for addressing all sorts of issues that crop up along the trail life carries us along. Feeling down? Try Tazeka’s Optimism blend; its mix of grapefruit and other oils brings sunny, warm days and hope forward in the heart and mind. Stressed? Give Tension Tonic a try; its cooling, relaxing scent spreads a balm over frayed nerves. Our goal at Tazeka is always to create essential-oil blends that bring pleasure while they heal. Here’s to a lovely September, full of wonderful and joyful aromas!