This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)
Wondrous sense of smell
Olfaction, smelling, fragrances have always been something like an enigma in the understanding of our 5 senses. Smell is the only sense with a direct access to the brain, say the scientists. And Ayurveda, the age-old healing science of India describes smell as being linked to the Earth element, the heaviest element so to say – as much as water is linked to taste, fire to seeing, air to touch and space to hearing.
Yes, it “makes sense” to connect our smelling to Mother Earth. And the statement of Renée Gattefossé, considered to be the founder of modern Aromatherapy, throws an interesting light on this context:
“Volatility and fragrance are signals of considerable physiological activity and energy”
It means nothing less than, when we smell, we connect ourselves with the earth element (heavy) and the air/space element (light) at the same time. This connection of opposites becomes for me a marker of the principal of healing, meaning: Connect the opposites, get the Yin and the Yang into the game, the “above and below” as in Alchemy and all ancient spiritual sciences.
Yes, it is true, when we smell an essential oil, we smell the fragrance of mountains and prairies, rocks and limestone soil, jungles and ocean-sides, murmuring rivers and laughing flower fields. But at the same time these volatile compounds of oils, and even their magic beyond bio-chemistry, their subtle cosmic energy of light penetrate our physiology, received by the brain, received by the lungs, received by the heart, lifting us up from the frosted ground of our social, mental and emotional “fields of gravitational imprisoment”.
But let’s look at what happens when we smell
Imagine taking a deep inhalation of Peppermint oil. What happens? We know today that the aroma molecules in the essential oil connect with the mucus membranes in the nose and then the receptor sites in the olfaction bulb which then stimulates an electric impulse sent to the brain.
Dr. Reijo Makela has made quite some research on odour and electromagnetism in the human body. He found out that an odor is first of all the electro-magnetic radiation of molecules and atoms which are then transmitted to the corresponding center in the brain (Reijo Makela, Living Cells are Electromagnetic Units). This electrical impulse immediately links with the limbic system, that part of the brain which is most associated with emotions, memories, moods, sexuality etc. We can say, it immediatedly links with that part of the brain which was there long before the cortex and neo-cortex developed over several evolutionary steps in the human body. Only smaller parts of odour information make their way to the neo-cortex level of our brain – to our consious awareness – which is certainly one of the reasons why olfactive information does not play a major role in our society. The major part of the impulses remaining “hidden underneath” make olfaction a bit suspect, something like an unknown sub-conscious territory where strange and unpredictable elements have their playground.
And still, perfumery and aromas have accompanied humanity for quite some time. The hidden sub-conscious impact of fragrances plays a major role in relationships and social behaviour. It triggers largely „invisible“ psychological responses of sympathy and antipathy, likes and dislikes, attraction and aversion… Indeed, many of our subconscious perceptions are first based on the sense of smell. In German, one says: „I cannot smell him“ (“Ich kann ihn nicht riechen”) – which means: „I totally dislike him“.
The “electricity” of odour also explains the high sensitivity of animals to odour. The electro-magnetic radiation creates automatically a field resonance – even at large distances. A shark can “smell electromagentically” blood or panic of swarms of fish traveling through the water from far away, and a dog can “smell” the storm long before it strikes. Olfaction, according to Valerie Ann Worwood, is:
“The most direct interface between the brain and the outside world”.
Valerie Ann Worwood
But not only this, of course. Olfaction is also the most direct interface between the conscious and the sub-conscious part in us. Smelling can waken the deepest memories hidden under the surface of our cognitive mind – mostly via the Amygdala, the bodies “stress and anxiety switch”. Smelling can also evoke traumas, forgotten experiences, suppressed emotions, and free – in an instant sometimes – our consciousness from blockages which have obstructed our original fearless, happy and self-content state. It is possible that with a single aromatic experience we can get into sudden contact with our “body of bliss,” the “ananda-maya kosha” as defined by the ancient Vedic seers in India.
Smelling is such a miraculous gift
And we hardly know how much it influences us every day, even during the night – around the clock. As we have seen, apparently the sense of smell is the most neglected sense of us humans. Maybe the mind with its thinking, intellectualizing, calculating etc. “took over” through the long span of human evolution on Earth. We know – as already mentioned – that numerous animals rely more on smell than on any other sense. But in terms of our personal “chronicle” of sense development, smelling is the first sense to appear in the human body. The first olfaction starts already inside the womb. The fetus “smells” before it tastes, feels, hears….. And even the male sperm is attracted to the female ovum by a fragrance which is identical with the scent of a flower, namely “lily-of-the-valley”. This is what Prof. Hanns Hatt at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany and his collegues have found out. And who would contradict the direct relation of smelling and breathing? It is as if Nature has wanted to link the vital function of breathing with the sense of smell so that there is “no escape” from using this vital sense.
”All which smells gives molecules into the air according to vapour pressure on the molecular level. They come to our nose by breathing. Only when we breathe we smell. We smell until the last breath of our life… The chemo-sensor system or chemo-perceptor system of the olfactive brain is probably the oldest sensory system in the long span of evolution.”
Prof. Hatt, University of Bochum / Germany, „Smelling – how it happens”
It was thought until not long ago that the human olfactive brain or “bulbus olfactorius” can distinguish between approx. 10 000 different olfactive patterns or fragrances. Recent research however states that we can diffenrentiate between several hundred of thousands different odour inputs. Our nose is more performing than we supposed.
A glimpse into evolution
Smelling actually began in the water, as Prof. Hanns Hatt states.
“The finding of cell partners and mating could only happen through the chemo-sensory system of smell. In older species when they left the water the rhinocephalus or olfactive brain occupied still 50 % of the brain at this time. And more and more receptors cells in a more complex environment developped from there on until the system reached about 1000 – 1200 different receptors. From there on it decreased. Chimpanzees have only 600 – 800 different olfactive receptors and human beings only 350.”
Prof. Hatt, translated from lectures of Prof Hatt, University of Bochum / Germany
Yes, it is astonishing – but human beings have only kept 350 activable odour genes which create the receptors of these more than 1000 genes. In the relatively short span of evolution we have lost two thirds of all our olfactive genes in our human genome responsable for smelling. Nevertheless these 350 olfactive genes are still the biggest group of genes in the human genome which shows how important the sense of smell still is for the human being.
“The human genome consists of about 1 Million genes out of which we can only use approx. 3 % = 30 000. The rest 97 % is so to say „gene trash“ stemming from the time of our “animal ancestors” (genes for fins, tails etc.). Something which we still carry along and pass on unused in our genome due to our animal past in evolution such as fins of fish of our past as fish or genes of some predecessor for producing a tail.”
Prof Hatt, translated from lectures of Prof Hatt, University of Bochum / Germany
We have even genes of bacteria, viruses, insects etc. But we still use and activate constantly 30 000 genes out of which 350 genes are responsable for smell.
As we have seen, the human olfactive bulb can distinguish between hundreds of thousands of different olfactive patterns or fragrances. …and our 35 million olfactive sensory cells are constantly renewed every 4 weeks! This is very important, because without this renewal of our olfactive cells it would be impossible for us to smell any more within a few years. This again shows how much Nature cares for the sense of smelling, because our other brain cells do not have this capacity to renew themselves regularly.
Each child when it is born comes to the world with a complete neutral attitude to all fragrances. Only when it smells a fragrance for the first time it links the fragrance to a certain memory, interaction, experience and thereby fills its olfactive memory with certain informations or evaluations which are simply based on the cultural environment. They are not independant objective realities. Each culture has its own system of olfactive evalutations and it is not easy to “reprogram” this system inside a specific culture.
Prof Hatt, translated from lectures of Prof Hatt, University of Bochum / Germany
However, there are certain functions of olfactive perception which belong to all human beings alike. There is hardly any culture on Earth which would dislike the scent of Rose… Certain plants – more than others – bring us into communion with the energy of the sun reflecting on our „inner plant“ – our nervous system – which brings us into communion with our inner “Sun”, our inner Light or Atma.
Plants and their essential oils bring us the love, the nourishing power of the sun, which is the same energy of all the stars, of all light. These cosmic energies emanated by plants thus nourish, sustain and make grow our own astral body.
Smelling is a part of this process of enriching and revitalizing our energy field with the gift of subtle fragrant and life giving molecules.
In the meantime, science states
“Smell receptors have also been found to exist in other places, such as the intestines, the prostate, the kidneys, and sperm. Now, it turns out some of these receptors are in human skin as well….What the RUB (Ruhr University Bochum, Prof. Hatt) researchers discovered was that, when the scent of sandalwood activates those receptors, a calcium-dependent signal pathway is triggered, which leads to greater cell proliferation and quicker migration of skin cells, which is important for repairing damaged skin.”
And not only this, aromatic molecules like terpenes (present in Conifer and Citrus oils i.e.) have been found out to hamper the growth of cancer cells due to certain smell receptors on the corresponding organs.
I always wonder about the “molecular” nose of my wife Fabienne. And I count the number of ladies at our regular Aromatherapy seminars in our Seminar Center in Provence.
Is Aromatherapy a female monopole? Well, Shirley Price in her book “Aromatherapy for Health Professionals” reminds us that, according to research, women have “more intense odour memories than men” (Herz and Cupchik, 1992). Shirly Price also quotes research which shows that the capacity of smelling has an emotional side.
“It was found that females reacted faster to smells with emotional links than to neutral smells. Emotional states also augmented the intensity of odours for males.”
Chen and Dalton, 2005
And whether the liking or disliking of an olfactive experience has an influence on practical improvements of performances etc. is still not 100 % clear. When essential oils of Bulgarian Rose, Geranium and Lavender were diffused in a room of 48 medical students there was an increase of concentration, attention span, work rythm and reflex times independant of whether the participants liked or disliked the odours. (Tasev, Toleva and Balabanova, 1969) Well, I would say, the degree of “disliking” was probably quite small with such beautiful fragrances. They should have tested this with garlic oil…. 🙂 Not to speak on moods and emotions which definitely change with pleasant or unpleasant fragrances.
An old story……
Many plants – and their are thousands – have specialized over time more on the olfactive or aromatic side of evolution using the wide-spread sense of smell in Nature for their strategies of defense and/or attraction. That is how the first essential oils came up. According to biologists it happened approx. 200.00 years ago in the Conifer family of plants. And since then the multiplication of bio-chemical aromatic molecules has made an incredible “run through time” until it reaches us today in the world of aromatic fragrances and Aromatherapy. Mother Nature really “means it” this time. I think, she wants us to participate in the secrets of the Earth and make ourselves, the “orphans of the beyond”, reconnect with the hidden astral potential of the plants, the “soil-sun beings” who have mastered – long before us – the riddle of the alchemistic transformation, the “as above so below”.
So the aromas and the beautiful fragrances are Nature’s seducers, one cannot withstand their magnetism, their power, their subconscious “tricks”. And that is how the messages of Nature for healing sneaks in. You just want to smell something, maybe nice, maybe interesting – and wufff – a whiff of something else shows up, like to a man on one of our presentations in South India during an Ayurveda retreat not long ago. I passed a bottle of Agarwood (Oud) around – and what happened? Within a few seconds – he burst into tears and could not stop…
A few experiences
“Hello Malte, it’s me, Amanda. How are you? I’m sending you a text I wrote about Jatamansi essential oil, my favorite. The inspiration came from the day I took a trip with friends and a friend had an epileptic seizure. I gave her the oil to smell and she stopped short. It was amazing and rewarding. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to buy it and be able to use it at this important time. I miss the days in Provence. Will always be marked in my heart. Big hug”
Amanda Dec. 2019
Jasmine, Frankincense and Palo Santo
“That evening, I trusted my intuition and chose Jasmine, Frankincense and Palo Santo. I mixed 4 drops of each one with 2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons of lime juice, both of which are natural cleansers. I immersed myself in the bath, took deep breaths and let the oils work on me, inside out. The combined scent of the three oils was divine and I could feel their healing powers gently embracing me. I slept beautifully that night and the next morning, my chest was clear and the cough was gone – for good!……..”
“Simply smelling vitex several times throughout the day can minimize or eliminate most of the problems associated with the change of life. Vitex works by balancing hormonal secretion in the pituitary gland, where it prompts your body to release the amounts of progesterone and estrogen that it needs. This eliminates the guesswork of HRT, the success of which depends on finding the right medication at the right dosage that will relieve symptoms without creating serious health conditions or severe side effects that are worse than the symptoms.”
„Aromatherapy PA“ by Roberta Wilson
“Just wanted to let you know…years ago while browsing „Garland of Letters“ in Philadelphia, PA I smelled Oshadhi Eucalyptus radiata and its spirit came out and the most Devine energy engulfed me with unimaginable warmth and love. At the time I only knew about E. globus . I rarely use this EO, because Eucalyptus Radiata has taught me more and is very gentle. I will never forget the encounter or experience. I still can recall it to this day. I purchased it and brought it home. I was in love with it. I purchased Oshadhi essential oils, but the brand was hard to get here. So I am so happy to have the opportunity to reconnect with my lost love…Oshadhi.
I bought some of the Rosemary essential oil for headaches. While I was hopeful, I was skeptical this could actually work. The first time I had a headache and used the oil I was SHOCKED when my headache vanished within 10 minutes of using the oil. I thought maybe it was a fluke but have experienced the same relief each time I use it. My sister also purchased some and she has also had the same results. I am so thankful I have found this product and have passed the word on to all my friends and family! Lena
“I used the Eucalyptus Oil for my allergies by inhaling for only three days. The results were remarkable. Not only did it stop my allergy problem, my sense of smell has returned after 32 years. I can walk in the yard now and actually smell the different flowers and plants. I can smell the different crops and pesticides. It is amazing.”
“Hello, My daughter is 21 months old and has Dravet Syndrome. Her seizures started at 4 months. I consulted with our neurologist and epileptologist about trying Frankincense oil for drop seizures. Both of them said it wouldn’t hurt to try, but they couldn’t guarantee it because there is no scientific proof of it working. So….we started out just putting the pure oil mixed with a little jojoba oil on the sole of her foot. She slept so much sounder that night. We slowly moved up to dabbing some on her temples, feet and back of her neck. She loves the smell and it soothes her when she becomes whiney. When she starts dropping her head I put the bottle under her nose and she smells it. Maybe it’s just me….but it works. We use it to tide us over til the next med time. I’ll keep buying it because she is soothed by it and that is what is important to me. 🙂 Hope this helps you make the decision!”
“For well over 3 years now I have been carrying a bottle of Jasmine essential oil in my pocket… Now this may seem strange to you, but since I work at an essential oil company, I thought it would make sense to carry an oil with me to smell from time to time etc. So I decided I would carry 1 oil per month to give it a go. However, as mentioned above, its been over 3 years and I still have this same oil in my pocket… The reason? Beyond loving the smell and feeling uplifted every time I smell it, I found that it seems to change the minds of those around me. I’ve found myself turning to my bottle when I am in uncomfortable situations with people who seem to be in a strange or difficult mood. I open the bottle and let the scent naturally flow out…What I’ve found is that within a very short time, sometimes less than a minute, the people’s attitude totally changes. They begin to smile and open up in a way people would not expect. I’ve had people literally change their perspective on an issue without any convincing from my side. Its amazing.”
“I have pollen allergies. I’ve been to an aromatherapy course and I use now tarragon essential oil and it’s truly miraculous. I smell it at the beginning of the day, then I put a drop on my solar plexus and I have no signs of allergy along the entire day. I do it three days in a row and I am allergy free for the entire week! Nature offers us so many solutions!”