Aroma Therapy Part Two – Our Sense of Smell and How it Works

One of the most aromatic of herbs in my garden, anise hyssop is not only tall and beautiful, but very attractive to bees – and who doesn’t need more bees in their garden! Although I can’t  say exactly how its aroma makes me feel, I can say I can’t get enough of it’s funky stuff.
Our sense of smell and how it works
Strategically located over the mouth where it can survey all substances that enter, the nose reacts to gaseous molecules carried on the air.  We need only eight molecules of an airborne substance to trigger an impulse in one of the exposed nerve endings, but forty nerve endings must be stimulated before we actually smell anything.  Unlike other neurons (nerve cells) in the body, many of which are injured or destroyed over time, these cells are replaced every thirty days or so.Our sense of smell is ten-thousand times more sensitive than our sense of taste, and about 80 percent of what we “taste” we really rather smell.  We can actually taste only four flavors – sweet, sour, salty and bitter, with some researchers adding alkaline and metallic to the list, while the foodies among us adding pungent and “golden”, not to mention “umami” (which is also involved with “mouth-feel” if you really want to know).  Everything else we call a flavor is really an odor.  And the average dog can smell forty times better (and more) than we can!
The effect of smell is immediate and potent.  Smells trigger powerful images and emotions before we even have time to consider them.  The smell of a person, place or thing triggers an electrical signal, which moves directly to an ancient part of the brain called the rhinencephalon, literally the “nose-brain”. The rhinencephalon is part of the limbic system where all basic life processes are regulated, such as heartbeat, respiration, body temperature and blood-sugar levels; it is the brain center where memories are activated, and is part of a primitive network of nerves that govern the “fight or flight” response, as in “the smell of danger”, as well as sexual impulses.  In some places – Borneo, Burma and India, for example – the word for “kiss” means “smell”.  A kiss can certainly be thought of as kind of prolonged smelling, and it has been observed that frequent prolonged smelling seems to make men’s beards grow faster.

If your partner ever comes back from four days of elk camp, all tired and dragged out, and mistakenly says “it’s good to smell you” instead of “see” you, well, maybe he really meant it!  The so-called chemistry between lovers could be considered a response to acceptable pheromones, or specialized aromatic chemicals secreted by one individual that affects the sexual physiology of another.  It’s a well-known phenomenon that a male moth will fly for miles on the wind of a single, ripe female in order to mate.  An experiment was once conducted in a waiting room where a chair was dowsed with male sex hormones.  Men tended to avoid the chair, while women took the seat much more often.

I hope you enjoy this series of posts on Aroma Therapy. I have always been an olfactory-sensitive being, sensing much from my surroundings through my nose, especially people. This sensitivity is sometimes a real downer because I know, I know, when a field or roadside has been sprayed with herbicide, and then I get all bummed out. It’s too easy to digress into that, but my sniffer also knows and loves the smell of blueberry pancakes, horse chestnut flowers, brand-new babies, and gahlick, dahling! Makes me glad I’m alive!

So get out there and take a whiff on me, and awaken to your sense of smell in all the silly, subtle and sensitive ways you can. And leave your stinky little brother at home.

©  Doreen Shababy