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What’s in an Oil, Anyway?

Essential Oil Display

At a lavender festival, many years ago, I was browsing through a small shop of essential oils and came across an aromatherapy pamphlet. It wasn’t thick, so I picked it up, and started to peruse through it. It started with a high-level physiological explanation. Then it made a declaration that stuck with me ever since: the sense of smell is the only sense where the brain touches the environment directly. From that context, aromatherapy was then explained.

The aromatherapy pamphlet discovered at that festival, talked about the primitive brain and how this simple system of chemo-receptors common in the most primitive creatures from amoeba to insects are a direct link to the mysterious systems of the subconscious. The art that is aromatherapy is the art of using this pathway to directly influence these primal systems for our own well-being. The whole thing was all kind of loosely proven and lacked scientific references, but yet intuitively, it seemed to go in an agreeable direction.

Touching the world with our brain

It would indeed seem that the brain is reaching out with it’s olfactory receptor arms and actually touching the world with it’s tiny cilia fingers.

How accurate is that pamphlet I skimmed so many years ago? Well turns out that the declaration that struck me so vividly, that the brain is the only sense that comes in direct contact with the environment seems to be true. Imagine, if you will, where  your scent receptors must be. Somewhere behind the nose, right? And that’s right where you’d expect to find the brain too. Located at the top of our sinus cavity is a wall of mucus. Olfactory receptors, directly connected to the olfactory bulb, that place inside the brain attributed to the origin of the sense of smell. (1) These olfactory receptors extend cilia into the mucus of the sinus cavity and directly contact and discern approximately ten-thousand different odorants.

olfactory-diagramFrom a strictly symbolic perspective, this seems like an extremely personal process. How closer can you get to the world than bringing it inside your body and then touching it with the tiny fingers of your brain. This mere fact alone may explain why smell is such a personal sense likely to invoke strong emotion. Returning to our lost pamphlet, however, it described a link to the primitive brain and the subconscious. This is corroborated by other sources. (2) Implicit in these descriptions is some evolutionary progression of a giant emotional nose, crawling out of the primordial sludge to become the foundation on which to layer a higher system of awareness of sight, sound, and consciousness. But somewhere underneath the lucid, that creature still exists. And we can whisper to it, with whiffs of lavender and rose.

Communicating primal self

Well, maybe. Whether you indulge in the poetry of ancient evolutionary physiological memories or not, it is difficult to dispute that there is something unique about the sense of smell. It does seem to conjure involuntary emotions and memories. In fact, these memories seem to be at a level of vividness that is actually beyond voluntary recall including a feeling of the sense itself. Now these memories and emotions can be both pleasant or unpleasant. And since their invocation is involuntary, that right there would explain the intimacy of the sense of smell, and our desire to control smells to mostly those that instantiate the pleasant. If this comes from a primitive self or not, the process is definitely not

Interesting research on at least some of the processes that the brain undergoes while activating these visceral memories and emotions was summarized at the conclusion of an article in GEMINI:

‘…the signals from your nose translate and connect to memories in an orchestrated symphony of signals in your head. Each of these memories connects to a location, pinpointed on your inner map.’ – Hege Tunstad (3)

It describes a cacophony of brain waves at certain frequencies that harmoniously synchronize neural activity across the lower region of the brain. The region associated with emotion under the cerebral cortex. Some articles I read attempt to categorize physiological systems as ancient or more recent, primitive and advanced by noting similar type systems in related specie, then estimating evolutionary divergence to determine approximate minimal age of that system. Uncommon or divergent systems are deemed to have developed at later stages. While this method is a reasonable possibility, I did not find anything I would consider concrete proof that these emotions emanate from a primal self.

The lost pamphlet alluded that essential oils trigger responses that have been programmed into this complex system over the millennium. There is research that disputes this hardwired assumption. (1) But that is not to say that the premise is false. The undisputed fact is, that there is still much to understand, even in the basic way the olfactory receptors identify odorants not to mention the complex effects on the rest of the brain. And there are contrary studies that show that infants naturally recoil from dangerous or unpleasant odors. Other research seems to point to associative responses to smells. That is, we learn to feel certain ways about certain scents depending on our life’s experience. Or it may be a combination of this. There is lots of evidence that the sense of smell varies by individual. So the answer is probably unique to each of us.

Aromatherapy for well-being

We can be tolerant in many ways, but this physicality of not being able to stand each others’ smell stops any kind of communication. – Sissel Tolaas (1)

Our sensory experiences can absolutely affect the quality of our life. Whether our response to smells is hardwired or learned or a combination, that scent can be used to enhance our well-being seems evident. If we assume a moderate perspective, then it would make sense that while scents may generally invoke certain responses in the population at large, specific responses are unique and therefore a practice of combining and blending those scents with known traditional uses with scents that we experience to have certain effects on our body. Through this personalized crafting, we can better influence the particular effects we desire. I believe we should work scent into our day, the way we work other sensory experiences. For example, in the morning, we may expose ourselves to coffee and bacon and eggs. But in the evening our preferred meal and beverage is likely to be different. Just because we like coffee in the morning, doesn’t mean it is appropriate at night. Likewise we want to use invigorating scents at times when we are active, and relaxing scents at times when we are over-stressed or at rest.

Since, at least in part the physiological reponse of the brain and body to the olfactory sense is beneath the conscious, it is critical that the quality of the scents used in aromatherapy be of the highest quality. Even if your mind cannot perceive the difference between high-quality oil and that of low quality or even rancid, it is very possible that your unconscious can perceive these variations and react in an undesirable manner. For this reason, Carmel Lavender distills it’s essential oils on-property to ensure the utmost quality throughout the entire production process.

In conclusion, I believe a combination of reference scents and personal experience enables us to develop aromatherapy regimes of maximum effectiveness. An example for which I have personal experience is in the use of rosemary. When I first distilled rosemary oil, I read that it was used by academicians during study to aid in memory recall. I experimented a little with the essential oil and indeed found that it did seem to make memory recall a bit smoother for me. So I began wearing the scent regularly on an aromatherapy pendant around my neck. Several days later, I found that the scent was causing mental fatigue. The overworking of the memory system was actually draining. And this was having the effect of causing me to feel an aversion to the smell of rosemary. I now use rosemary only whenit is necessary to be on top of my game. And I give my body a rest when it isn’t needed. When exploring aromatherapy, it is best to heed those ‘feelings’ and then look for ways to accommodate the needs of our body.

If you would like to order Carmel Lavender essential oils for your aromatherapy rituals, please visit our online store at: http://shop.carmellavender.com/lavender-essential-oil-5ml/


(1) Tim Jacob, A Tutorial on the Sense of Smell, Cardiff University, http://www.cf.ac.uk/biosi/staffinfo/jacob/teaching/sensory/olfact1.html

(2) Marjorie A. Murray, Ph.D., Our Chemical Senses: Olfaction, University of Washington, http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/chems.html

(3) Hege Tunstad, Why Your Nose Can Be a Pathfinder, GEMINI, http://gemini.no/en/2014/04/why-your-nose-can-be-a-pathfinder/

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