Our sense of smell is a mysterious mechanism through which we can experience the healing power of aromatic plants. We know aromatic plants have been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes. But why are aromas medicinal? And how can aromatic plants have a potent effect on our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing?
Our Sense Of Smell
Since time immemorial, our sense of smell has been intrinsically connected to the sacred and divine, above all other senses. Across the Earth, the ancients considered our sense of smell to be our exalted sense. In many ancient religious and sacred texts, scent is almost always associated with a higher power, sacred offerings, and prayer. Whether in the form of incense, anointing oils, sacred perfumes, or other aromatic herbal concoctions, aroma is believed to have the ability to bridge the gap between worlds, helping us achieve greater states of divine connection and spiritual attunement.
Fragrant offerings and incense are mentioned many times throughout the Bible, Talmud, the Book of Exodus, the Torah, the Ebers Papyrus, and other well-known spiritual literature. In Biblical times, burning aromatic plants was thought of to be one of the highest forms of sacred offerings to God. This belief can be traced across every continent and throughout many different cultures. From ancient Egyptians to the Vikings of old, the burning of incense was a common show of reverence, honoring, and devotion.
The magic behind scent is certainly mysterious. Modern science has been able to explain a lot about its effects on the brain, memory, and emotion, but there’s many aspects of our sense of smell that simply can’t be explained by science. Its direct link to our intuition and spiritual or extraordinary experiences is above and beyond what can be uncovered in a lab.
Clary Sage, Salvia sclarea
The Science of Scent
Our sense of smell is a primordial way of interacting with the world around us, and is believed to be one of the first senses to evolve in terrestrial beings. Humans have about 350 genes for receptor sites in the nose to detect aromas.
The olfactory system is composed of the nose and nasal passages which are lined with mucus membranes, as well as the olfactory nerves, bulb and tract. At the top of the nasal cavities, there is epithelial tissue which is a membranous structure that produces a layer of mucus.This mucus, produced by tiny cilia hanging down from the epithelial tissue, is where there are receptor sites for aromatic molecules – giving us the ability for smell. These receptor sites transform molecules in the air into an electrical signal, and from there, transport that signal via the olfactory bulb and olfactory nerve to the brain.
The olfactory bulb is a processing center, and the olfactory nerve carries sensory stimuli to the centers in the brain that are responsible for memory and emotion. Something unique to the sense of smell, is that impulses from aromatic molecules go directly to the limbic system without being processed elsewhere in the brain – as opposed to the other senses which go through other processing centers first. This means that before we are even able to identify or know what the smell is, we are already having an emotional response to it.
Our sense of smell is also a survival mechanism. Many of the scents we are able to detect are actually bad smells, such as rotten or spoiled food. We are designed to have an immediate emotional and instinctual reaction to whatever it is we are smelling, which helps us avoid potential harm or danger.
Interestingly, within the olfactory system there is a high amount of cellular turnover that happens within the epithelial membrane. The receptor sites are replaced every four to eight weeks, so we have a lot of capacity for regeneration of our sense of smell, and even to train or enhance our capacity to smell.
Plumeria, Plumeria rubra
What is an aroma?
Aromatic molecules are chemical structures that have to be airborne and volatile in order to be inhaled and perceived as a smell. Aromatic molecules must easily evaporate into the atmosphere and be able to pass through our mucus membrane and latch into receptor sites to be detected. That being said, not all airborne substances can be detected as a smell by our olfactory system.
Something that is fascinating about aromas – is that the smell isn’t the actual chemical molecule itself, rather, aroma is the sensation of that molecule. This means that an aroma by itself doesn’t have a smell. It is only when the molecules attach to the receptor sites in our nose and transform into an electrical signal to be carried to the brain, does it become an aroma. Molecules go from being a chemical form of communication, into an electrical communication within the receptor sites. So an aroma from a plant is a sensation, rather than the actual substance.
Ayurveda and the senses
When we look at the olfactory sense through the lens of Ayurveda, we can observe it through the Sankhya philosophy, which follows the journey of consciousness into matter. Our olfactory sense is related to what are known in Ayurveda as the tanmatras, which include shabda (sound), sparsha (touch), rupa (vision or form), rasa (taste) and gandha (smell). The tanmatras are the subtle elements from which physical matter is derived, and relate to the five elements, ether, air, fire, water and earth.
According to ayurveda, our sense of smell relates to the Earth element – Earth is represented as the most solid form of matter and our nose is the vehicle in which we experience the sensation of smell. Our sense of smell is said to be intimately connected to our subconscious mind and our memory.
This aligns with the modern interpretation, as sensations of smell travel to the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is responsible for much of our behavioral and emotional responses, which operate primarily on a subconscious level. The limbic system can also act as a link between the autonomic nervous system functioning and the intellectual, conscious functioning of the brain. It includes the hypothalamus, amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus.
The hypothalamus alone is responsible for the production of many neurotransmitters that impact our mood, such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. As well, it is the beginning of various hormone pathways, including the thyroid gland, reproductive system and the adrenal glands. It also runs our autonomic nervous system and governs our natural flow of breath.
My Ayurveda teacher, Vasant Lad, often speaks about healing happening at the subconscious level. Using the sensory pathways as a means of reaching the subconscious for healing can be referred to as “tanmatra chikitsa” or subtle therapies. For example, the smell of a Lilac on the breeze takes you back to a memory of being at your grandparents house as a child and playing in the garden. A feeling of sweetness arises within and a smile comes to your face. It could be that you didn’t even realize that memory was stored within you, but the smell unfolded that memory.
This is the journey of an aromatic substance into the subconscious mind. Smells can bring forth things we have stored on the delicate film of our memory – from the unconscious to the conscious – to be processed. The ability to digest emotions can relate to something called sadhaka pitta, which is a great intelligence within our mind and heart that brings comprehension, understanding and awareness.
Healing with aromas
Healing with aromatic plants doesn’t mean you have to burn incense all day in your home, or diffuse essential oils constantly. Aromas can have a huge impact on you in a very short amount of time. In fact, after an aromatic molecule fits into a receptor site and we have the initial perception of an aroma, that signal stops firing by 50 per cent after a few seconds and lowers its rate from there. After a few moments, you won’t be able to smell a scent as strongly as you did initially.
So for aromatic plants to have a therapeutic effect on us, we don’t need to overload our olfactory system with their scent. The benefit of aromatic plants can happen quickly as the sensation of smell is received. Bringing your full awareness to the present moment while smelling an aroma will also help you receive the medicinal effect more deeply.
When any emotion or experience cannot be fully processed, it gets dumped into the dark basement of our subconscious mind. These unprocessed experiences can become a “samskara", which is an impression that is left on our mind, brain and nervous system, and can influence our behaviors, thoughts, feelings and responses to the world, without us being aware of it.
So much of our behavior stems from the subconscious mind. How often do you truly pay complete attention to your thoughts, emotions and actions throughout the day?
We often seek relief from heavy emotions but don’t know how to find resolution. This is where the medicine of aromatic plants shines. The aromas from plants enter directly into our subconscious mind and have the power to move us through deep processing. They connect us with the place in our being where our emotions give rise to our behaviors.
Using the sense of smell as a healing tool is a journey inward through the doors of perception. Aromatic plants are a dear friend to us, they help us to access and digest our samskaras, without having to overthink it. If you pay complete attention to the sensation of smell, and what thoughts, feelings and emotions arise from it, a great amount of healing can occur. In that full undivided attention, there is love and freedom. In that witnessing, you are able to watch unprocessed emotions arise, flower and dissolve in your awareness. Aromas have the capacity to shift our mood and move us into feelings of joy, peace and bliss!
This is the sacredness of building relationships with aromatic plants – they are divine beings which hold our hand as we traverse the vast inner waters of the emotional sphere. Our connection to the botanical kingdom is something truly heart expanding, and thankfully, we have the guidance of plants as we navigate the great mystery that is the human experience.
Article written by Dawn Gibson
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*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.