The connection between fragrances and our emotions

The olfactory system is amazing! It's the bodily system in charge of taking in and processing smell. Scientists Richard Alex and Linda Buck, winners of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, discovered that there are more than 1,000 genes that react to the sense of smell -- and each of these genes has receptors that can detect a variety of smells. The research also shows we have thousands of smells embedded in our memory. This "fragrance memory" triggers emotional responses that correspond to our feelings when the smell was first imprinted in our brain.

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Some smells also elicit emotional responses not from memory, but from the essence of the smell itself. For example, essential oils used in aromatherapy elicit a similar response from most people.

Our noses are connected to more than one area of the brain. The limbic system is responsible for our moods and emotions and is hard wired into the olfactory receptors. Smells are also associated with the hippocampus, which is associated to environmental learning. Fragrance is processed through the amygdala which is the emotion processor in the brain. This explains why some people associate different smells with various emotional responses. For one person the smell of tobacco may conjure the image of a favorite grandfather's pipe and for another it may represent sadness due to the loss of a loved one.

The power of emotions and smells is so strong that many companies are using fragrances for marketing. A classic example of this is real estate agents and open houses. Most use comforting smells such as freshly baked cookies to entice would -- be customers into purchases.

Another example is perfume or cologne designed to attract the opposite sex. Perfumers have been using these subtle clues to create alcohol based fragrances for generations. Attraction to a person can rise due to their smell. A positive attraction to vanilla is almost universal and is a base scent for many perfumes for this reason.

Women have a stronger sense of smell than men on average. This partially explains why women invest so much money in scented candles and sweet smelling beauty products. Most women have a groups of fragrances that are preferred that can be easily identified. The specific identification of the scent is a positive emotional reinforcement. This may be why many women wear a "signature scent." The memory of a smell is long and persistent without any active conditioning.

Have you ever had your mood change with a breeze of the wind? Pleasant smells not only give us a passing emotional sensation, but can entirely change our mood almost instantly. These mood- altering benefits are not only associated with pleasing and pleasant smells. It may be counterintuitive, but sometimes even foul odors can trigger pleasant memories and cause the same elation. For example, engine oil or kerosene may be a wonderful smells to some because they are paired with memories of summer boating and campfires. Discovering the memories attached to specific smells to use in a therapeutic setting can help many people to control their emotional responses.

Aromatherapy is an alternative medicine technique which uses smells to change the health, mood, and emotional state.

Essential oils are extracted from many parts of botanicals:

essential oils - ylangylang flower Flowers (e.g., lavender, jasmine, rose)
Fruits (e.g., bergamont, lemon)
Grasses (e.g., citronella)
Leaves (e.g., eucalyptus, peppermint)
Roots (e.g., ginger, vetiver)
Seeds (e.g., black pepper, fennel)
Tree Blossoms (e.g., ylang-ylang, clary sage)
Woods and Resins (e.g., sandalwood, frankincense)

Ylang-Ylang flower shown at left

Some of the most common essential oils and their universal reactions or emotions include:

  • Eucalyptus. Widely used for respiratory congestion, eucalyptus helps bring comfort during periods of mental and physical exhaustion.
  • Lavender. The most widely used essential oil. Lavender helps combat insomnia and calms and balances the mind and emotions. It also reduces irritability in both adults and children.
  • Peppermint. Peppermint is great for creating energy and stamina. It boosts mental clarity as well. It helps with nausea and motion sickness. It has also been known to bring relief to migraine sufferers.
  • Rose Geranium. Relaxing and soothing, rose geranium can enhance sensuality and assist in confidence building.
  • Lemon. Lemon is used for added energy to the mind and body and a sense of clarity.
  • Rosemary. Aiding in stimulation of mental clarity, concentration and memory, rosemary promotes cerebral activity. It is used by students for memory-building during studying and exam time.
  • Sandalwood. Sandalwood promotes deep relaxation, abates depression, and quiets the mind and emotions.
  • Tea tree. Tea tree oil acts as an antiseptic, so it can be used to disinfect contaminated items. It is especially useful for fungal infections. It also helps strengthen the immune system.
  • Ylang-Ylang. This oil can calm the nervous system, ease depression, and reduce frustration.

Aromatherapy is a practice that uses essential oils to purposefully trigger a physiological response. The most popular use for aromatherapy is for relaxation and stress relief.

If you should choose to incorporate essential oils into your life, you should know a few tips before getting started:

  • One of the best ways to experience essential oils is via an essential oil diffuser. Diffusers allow the oil to slowly permeate the surrounding air, filling the room with the fragrances
  • Try to mix oils and come up with blends that work for you.
  • Always use carrier oil such as almond oil, jojoba oil, vitamin E oil. Generally, the higher the fat content the more stable the carrier oil.
  • Be careful about applying any essential oil directly on the skin. If applying oils to the skin, use a good carrier oil so that you do not harm the skin.
  • Use only oils you are comfortable with and know something about
  • Avoid using on infants
  • Cut the dose for children in half
  • Always use carrier oil such as almond oil, jojoba oil, vitamin E oil. Generally, the higher the fat content the more stable the carrier oil.
  • Add just 2-3 drops of essential oil to several tablespoons of carrier oil.
  • Some oils carry a higher degree of toxicity and should never be used on the skin. These include juniper, cinnamon, pennyroyal, fennel, hyssop, and wintergreen.

Sources (Accessed June 3, 2012)

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