Smell, and the Brain; My Oil Experience!
Ok, so I am the type of person that has always had a strong sense of memory recall as a result of smells. Certain smells will evoke reminiscence, joy, and positive emotion. But I have found, in my essential oil journey, that smells are overwhelmingly important to me, especially the ones that take me to a place and time full of happiness, laughter, and peace. I use them in many ways, diffusing in my home, at work, and during my yoga practice. But here are my “sense of smell” stories:
One of the first moments that I realized a smell could bring on a very strong emotional reaction was when I had started a new job in an organization that had an onsite gym with the nicest dressing/shower rooms and towels available onsite. I had my early morning workout, took my shower, and upon grabbing the towel and bringing to my face to dry the drops of water, I took a whiff. Imagine feeling like you are Michael J. Fox as you jump into your silver DeLorean and jet back to 1969 to the smell of your grandmother’s bathroom with Ivory soap that floated in the tub, Golf Digest magazines in a basket on the floor, daisy wallpaper, and a gas heater built into the wall that you lit with a match. That one towel in that gym that day whisked me back so fast I felt like I was 6 years old all over again.
Over the years I have had very similar experiences. The memories that have taken me back have been those of the musty furnace room of my other grandparents where my grandmother Dena dried flowers, stored vegetables, and kept her clothes-line pin basket (which we were always using). Or there was the memory of their garage with lots of scrap pieces of wood that my grandfather used to build things (one thing was my first bookshelf that he helped me build, that I still have today). And there is the smell of cone flowers and tomato plants that transports me to Dena’s amazing garden full of so many varieties of vegetables I couldn’t even count.
How does all of this relate to my essential oil journey? Well I used to be a candle girl. I always had the warmest smells of sugar cookie, pumpkin spice, or apple pie glowing in my house, until I discovered oils. I can thank my daughter for this journey, but it started mainly because I wanted to have a holistic approach to cleaning, health and wellness, and healing. It didn’t take much to get me hooked. But then I realized that the fragrance of oils was much more soothing, calming, and even healing than any of my candles ever were. So, I switched, for good!
Forward a couple of years into this journey and I entered another season of life, studying to teach yoga. Many know that oils are very much a part of a yoga practice. I won’t go into that here, because there are MANY ways and reasons oils are the perfect partner to any yoga practice. But the part I want to share with you is the emotional response you can have from a fragrance in an oil that brings about a recollection or a memory that stirs your other senses. A kind of stirring that helps you achieve a level of peace and calm that you didn’t know how to find previously.
I was in my yoga teacher training and a fellow student was doing her “final” and teaching our class. Her presentation included different oils and how they align with the chakras (the energy centers in our body that help regulate our processes like organ function or our immune system). As she made her presentation, she passed each oil she was talking about to fellow students for us to smell. There was one oil that created a reaction in me that I did not expect!
Remember at the beginning I shared the towel story? The scent of the Ylang Ylang oil took me to that same house, but a different place, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. I knew it was my grandmother Lucy’s and I could feel myself running, playing, cooking, laughing, and enjoying being a kid there, but I couldn’t totally nail down where the smell was coming from. In this moment, though, I became emotional as tears welled in my eyes. I suddenly felt warmth and love as if there was a presence around me, like being tucked into a warm blanket. The smell stuck with me for days as I tried to recall the room, the space, maybe the chair or the curtains, something in that house that evoked that fragrance. But it didn’t come to me.
Fast forward six months, and still in this essential oil journey, and I finally have a chance to order Ylang Ylang for myself! (It is a rare oil, it isn’t always available, AND it is a little expensive. Living on a nonprofit budget had not allowed for it until it was available on SPECIAL) I couldn’t wait for the bottle to arrive.
When it did, I was so excited that I had to open it in the car before I even went in the house after checking the mail. I sat there and cried. It hit me, the exact place that evoked so much happiness, laughter, joy, and childlike abandon, and that smell.
When we were little, my grandfather (Ed, Edward McOwen, Lucy’s husband) was a candy and chip distributor. They had a small warehouse attached to the back of their home. As kids, when we would go to visit, that was our playhouse! It was not well lit, had very dark wood walls and a wooden floor, and was full of the biggest boxes of candy you have ever seen! Clark Bars, Butterfingers, Double Bubble bubble gum, Juicy Fruit, literally every candy you could find at a convenience store, my grandfather had in his warehouse! And that was the smell….the sweet fragrance of gum, chocolate, or strawberry candy, mixed with the warm scent of wood, cardboard boxes, old industrial lighting, and maybe even the lingering smell of the last semi that delivered the most recent order.
That is where I went in my memory! What a special place! That is why now, as an adult, fragrances have become so important to me with what my husband and I are doing in the arts/community center we have founded. I always have my diffuser going. As families, kids, or adults come in for various activities, my hope is that the fragrance created in the space also creates memories in their minds that will bring the same positive recollection for them some day. I have diffusors going at home for the same reason and to create a calm, peaceful, loving environment for us and for all who enter.
So how does this all work? I’ve shared with you all of these stories and my experiences, but what does that mean? It means that we have sections in our brain that create all of these memories based on smell. And did you know that the only regeneration of cells that happens in our brains is with the sense of smell and taste? If you present your senses with more and more smells, the cells regenerate! Who loves to cook and try new recipes? Same with your sense of taste! Our brains are SO fascinating!
For those of you who want to geek out on the chemistry behind all of this (because I’m no scientist and I cannot teach you this stuff; I just love sharing my experience) I have some links for you to check out.
A great podcast!
Here is a quote from this podcast:
“Scents and tastes are powerfully evocative — one whiff of perfume or cooking aromas can transport you back to a particular moment, a particular place, a particular person. Because the things we smell reach two brain structures called the hippocampus and amygdala in just one synapse, scents can almost immediately stimulate the key brain areas for memory, emotion, and location.”
A fun video!
“You catch a whiff of pumpkin pie, school glue, newspaper, or fresh-cut grass and suddenly you’re immersed in a flurry of vivid memories, often from your childhood. What is it about smells that can trigger memories so strong and real it feels like you’ve been transported back in time?
It’s known as “odor-evoked autobiographical memory” or the Proust phenomenon, after French writer Marcel Proust. In his famous novel In Search of Lost Time, the narrator dips a madeleine cookie into a cup of tea and is transported back into time as long-forgotten memories of his childhood come flooding back.”
And after you finish your science lesson, think about the fragrances that evoke emotion for you. If you’re an essential oil user, why are certain oils your favorites? Are there emotions or memories that stir when you use them? If you’re not an essential oil user, try it! If you have questions, ask me! I would love to help you if you decide to set out on the same journey. AND if you enjoy yoga, add oils to your practice! It can help you deepen the experience, the meditation, and help you achieve a level of peace and calm that maybe you haven’t experienced before.
Thank you for letting me share! Find fragrances that bring joy to your heart and soul!