Aromas effect mood and evoke memories. If the smell of baking cookies, a smoky campfire, or a lover’s favorite perfume have ever transported you back in time, calling up long-forgotten events and feelings, then you have experienced the powerful association between aromas, emotions, and memories.
Long before modern scientists began the study of the physiological processes that underlie this association, human beings were exploring and utilizing the power of fragrant substances in their daily lives. Many ancient cultures, including those of India, China, and Persia have left records that document their use of fragrance for its effect on mental states and feelings. The Egyptians, in particular, made extensive use of incense and fragrant oils in their religious rituals.
Kyphi, an incense containing at least 16 herbs and other fragrant plants such as Juniper, Cinnamon, and Myrrh, was used by Egyptian priests to facilitate the attainment of ecstatic states during religious rites. Virtually every culture has reported aphrodisiacal properties for various fragrances. In the harems, Sandalwood and Rose were prized for enhancing sexual desire and the essential oils of Vetiver, Patchouli, Ylang Ylang, Jasmine, Ginger, and Clary Sage have all been used for this purpose. Many ancient peoples, such as the Romans, became very skilled at utilizing certain fragrant plants for evoking specific mental states. Aromatherapy lore reports highly selective effects for specific essential oils; for example, Frankincense and Cypress have been said to aid in dispelling grief, while Ylang Ylang and Juniper are claimed to aid in coping with guilt.
Today, we continue to be aware of the impact of aromas on moods and other aspects of our states of mind, such as alertness, sexual drive, and aggressiveness. Retailers have even attempted to “cash in” on our innate responsiveness to scents by impregnating the air in their stores with fragrances which they believe will stimulate shoppers to make purchases. Their efforts often go awry, however, because those attempting to utilize aromas in this way frequently fail to distinguish between the beneficial effects of natural plant aromas and the deleterious effects of synthetic fragrances, which cause headaches and other unpleasant symptoms in many people.
Modern research supports our intuitive recognition of the impact of aromas on mood and other mental states. Different essential oils have been shown to produce consistently different brain wave patterns on EEG, even when experimental subjects have reported little perceived difference between the odors and have not noticed changes in mood or alertness. Findings such as these suggest that aromas can have subliminal, or unconscious, effects on our mental states and it is precisely this subliminal effect that aromatherapists hope to capitalize upon when they suggest diffusing specific essential oils into environments where people are likely to feel anxious or agitated. In her book, The Fragrant Mind, Valerie Ann Worwood, a well known aromatherapist, suggests diffusing essential oils such as Lavender in prisons and holding cells to help keep inmates calm and less aggressive. She suggests that in addition to having specific relaxing and calming effects, some essential oils may help to bring out the more positive aspects of peoples’ personalities and attitudes.
Aromas may also be utilized in a conscious, intentional way to effect mood and mental states. Citrus oils, for example, are described by aromatherapists as being uplifting, gently stimulating, and conducive to alertness and concentration, while the essential oils of Lavender, Clary Sage, and Roman Chamomile are described as relaxing and soothing. With this knowledge, you might choose to diffuse a small amount ( 3 or 4 drops) of Grapefruit oil in your work space in order to support your efforts on an important project, or, you might similarly use essential oil of Clary Sage when you want to relax and feel comforted after a stressful event.