In the 21 st Century, the era of science and technology, scent remains one of the last territories of the irrational. This is because our sense of smell is processed via the limbic system, also known as ‘the emotional brain’, which is beyond our logical control yet connects us directly to our primitive instincts. It has now been clearly demonstrated that when an odour is inhaled, it directly affects an area in the brain called the olfactory epithelium, which contains millions of nerve endings. It is here that the fragrance is transmuted into a nerve message, which is amplified by the olfactory bulb, and then passed along the olfactory tract before entering the limbic system. This part of the brain is also concerned with emotion and related associations, so it is at this point that the odour may trigger a memory, either recent or past. The message is then passed on to the hypothalamus, which acts as a regulator and a relay station. From here the message can be sent to other parts of the brain and the effects fully experienced.

But although olfactory signals are processed by the so-called ‘primitive part of our brain’, this does not imply that we are not being influenced on a minute-to- minute basis by these messages … far from it! In a clinical laboratory study, women were asked to sample the smell of T- shirts worn by a variety of different men, and then asked to select the ones that they found the most attractive (or the least noxious!). On analysis, it was revealed that without exception the woman preferred the odour of those men who were the furthest removed from their own genetic gene pool and thus best suited as a sexual partner. This shows that our primal instincts, which function largely via our sense of smell, are alive and kicking even if we are not generally aware of them.

Today, we constantly try to cover up these essential life-preserving ‘messages’ with a plethora of artificial smells and fragrances in our modern urban environment. Early societies however, naturally valued and were more tuned in to these subliminal scent ‘messages’, both as a tool of survival (such as being able to ascertain whether a particular food was edible or not by it’s scent), as well as for more intimate indications. Indeed, within certain tribes in Africa, it is still considered legitimate grounds for divorce if a woman does not like the smell of her man.

In my book ‘Aromatherapy & the Mind’ first published in 1994 (today available as an e-book) I explore at length the intimate connection between perfume and personality in relation to our basic drives of attraction and repulsion. We know that certain scents have the power to bring back long forgotten memories, give pleasure or alternatively repel us, all on a subliminal level. But how do they effectively alter our mood, enhance our sense of wellbeing, uplift or soothe us? In a series of experiments measuring the effect of specific essential oils on brainwave patterns using an EEG (electroencephalogram) monitor, it was shown that scents could alter brain wave patterns quite significantly, where an increase in alpha activity indicated a relaxing or soothing effect, whereas increased beta activity indicted increased levels of stimulation or attention. As a general rule in such studies, neroli, lavender, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, valerian, frankincense chamomile and bergamot increased delta and alpha patterns, thereby slowing the mind’s ‘mental chatter’, being similar to brain wave patterns induced by a meditative state. Whereas rosemary, basil, black pepper, cardomon, clove, peppermint and lemongrass increased beta activity, patterns characteristic of a state of arousal or alertness.

From such studies, it is clear that the psychotherapeutic basis for the effect of essential oils on our emotional and instinctual nature is under pinned by the fact that all scents are processed by our ‘primitive brain’: i.e. they present a direct path to our unconscious. In addition, essential oils have been shown to affect our brainwave patterns inducing states of sedation or arousal, thus altering our mood, simply via their fragrance. Training ourselves to become sensitive and attuned to natural scents can also help us connect via our intuition with our emotional interior … and even our sexual preferences! In these scientifically orientated times, this is still an area of sensual experience that is beyond rational conditioning yet remains an intrinsic part of our sense of identity and our experience of reality.